Cicadas: 17 years in 7 minutes (WATCH); and the Charlottesville epicenter

June 5, 2013

A video trailer for an upcoming PBS documentary on cicadas by Samuel Orr.  An interview with Orr about his documentary and his work with cicadas can be found below. (Samuel Orr)

For many people, there is something particularly fascinating, endearing, and even gross about the 17-year periodical cicadas.  The cicada is quite large, clumsy, and they have no fear of predators.  The bug’s unusual life cycle — solitary living underground for 17 years followed by swarming and mating above ground for four-to-six weeks — makes the cicada a very interesting and unusual bug.

Perhaps no-one finds cicadas more interesting than Samuel Orr, who is working on a cicada documentary targeted for PBS.  Below is my interview with Samuel to discuss his documentary and his thoughts regarding cicadas.

Give us a summary of your cicada documentary? (Orr) The film looks at the amazing lives of the Periodical Cicadas, and potentially (if funding is successful) some of the 2000+ species of cicadas found worldwide. Only in the eastern North America have cicadas developed this striking way of emerging together, at the end of such a long life. As far as I know, they’ve never been the feature of their own significant documentary film.

How many years have you recorded video of cicadas? (Orr)  I’ve filmed them in 5 different years. This will be the 6th.

What locations and what broods have you documented? (Orr)  Starting with an earlier project: 2004 in southern Indiana, 2007 in Chicago and northern Indiana, 2008 in southeastern Indiana and Ohio, some stragglers (1 year late) in Ohio in 2009, and 2011 in Illinois and Missouri. They’re out in Ohio and Indiana quite often, particularly around Cincinnati.

Have you noticed any differences among the various cicada broods? (Orr)  Not really, they seem to be the same wherever you find them. In 2007, when I started filming the current HD project, I hadn’t seen a periodical cicada in 3 years. But the moment I spied the first one, and picked it up, it was like an old friend had returned.

Do you plan to film the emergence of Brood II this year?  If so, what locations?  (Orr)  I’m trying to arrange a high speed camera to film them in slow-motion while in flight soon in New Jersey, and after I’ll head to the Hudson River region to do more time-lapse of the nymphs emerging from their shells. Interest in the short film that went online May 23 and the kickstarter project has delayed me quite a bit; I’d planned on being out filming 5 days ago. I might also stop by Northern Virginia [this week] as well to see what’s going on

What do you find most interesting about cicadas?  (Orr)  It’s a combination of their transformation from this dirt-dwelling creature into something that flies away into the trees, and their long time underground. There’s something poignant in that they’re in essence in solitary confinement for their whole lives, then emerge and fly into these great social swarms. It also helps that they have such striking eyes; you don’t generally feel that you’ve made eye contact with an insect.

How many hours do you typically spend each night shooting video of cicadas emerging?  (Orr)  It can vary, but usually 3-5 hours after sunset focusing on them in masses, and then often until dawn trying to get time-lapse close-ups of them leaving their shells in more controlled conditions (i.e. in a make-shift studio in a hotel room). Outside, you risk your star getting sideswiped by other cicadas on a tree trunk, or even eaten.

What was the most amazing or bizarre cicada sight that you have witnessed over the years?  (Orr)  That would be the thousands of cicada chimneys I saw under a patio deck In Bloomington, Indiana in 2004. Under conditions not entirely clear, when cicadas dig their exit hole before they emerge in the spring, sometimes they build these mud towers (called chimneys) up from the ground, usually a few inches tall. Generally you find them isolated or in small numbers. Under this deck, however, there were thousands of chimneys, some well over a foot tall. It resembled a lunar landscape, complete with cicadas peering out from their elevated holes. By the time I got back for a photo/video, the family cat had demolished them.

What made you decide to focus on cicadas as a subject for a documentary? (Orr)  The fascination I’d had for them since first finding their shells on a tree as a child, and the realization that nobody had made a proper documentary film about them. There was a film from the 1930s made by the Dept. of Agriculture that’s quite amusing today, but I’m not aware of anything significant that really focuses on them. All you generally see is a short (3-5 minute) segment in a larger film about nature or insects, and more often than not that focus is on the disgusting or unpleasant aspect. I always thought that there was much more to their lives than the shock value, and am encouraged that so many people (300,000 views of the cicada film on vimeo in first 9 days) also appreciate their strange and wonderful lives.

Have you almost finished the documentary?  What is left to film?  (Orr)  I’m nearly done with the Periodicals after 5 years, but I’ve always wanted to include other cicadas from around the world, both as fascinating themselves, but also as a contrast that makes the lifecycle of the 17-year variety all the more striking. I also plan to film the Cicada Killer wasp, a predator of the annual cicadas, in action as it parasitizes a cicada. These come out too late in the summer to encounter the spring-oriented Periodicals.

When do you anticipate that your documentary will air on PBS?  (Orr)  This is dependent on how it’s distributed.  It will be finished in 2014. The most likely scenario is that it will be presented by an individual station in their region later in 2014, and then made available afterwards to PBS stations nationally via American Public Television (APT). My plan is for the film to be available nationally during the Cicada emergence in Spring 2015.

What type of video camera did you use for the project?  (Orr)  HD camera technology has been evolving since I started in 2007, and this has been a bit of a budget production. The first camera I used was a Canon XH-A1 with some added macro lens attachments. Today, that format of camera is obsolete, and I primarily use DSLRs like the Canon 7D and 5D.  I’m hoping to have a Red Epic camera available for some of the shooting this year.

Have you ever eaten or taste-tested a cicada?  If so, what is your opinion?  (Orr)  I was surprised with a plate of stir-fried cicadas in 2004 while filming, and truthfully was a little repelled at the idea of eating my film subjects. They tasted like the oil and garlic they were cooked in. But if you do eat them, make sure to harvest as they emerge from the shell (they in essence peel themselves). At that point they’re soft and just like a shrimp: a delicacy 17 years in the making.

What’s the most challenging cicada filming shoot that you can remember?  (Orr)  Hmm…that’s a tough one. They’re all usually frustrating and long. However, I would say one of the most enlightening was filming in a Chicago suburb in 2007. This neighborhood had one of the densest emergence I’ve ever seen; cicadas covered the ground. A couple who lived across the street had just seen the new big nature series (with cicadas) on cable TV earlier that night, but in the end were disappointed by the near-record reality of what they saw in their yards in comparison to the hyped TV version. I’ve seen a few film crews doing their own cicada shoots over the years, and often their version in unrealistically staged (i.e buckets of cicadas dumped at base of trees to increase the numbers, shaking a tree to stir up lots into the air). This is unfortunate, because these animals are amazing on their own, and that’s the story I hope to tell.

Samuel Orr will be traveling to the East Coast this week to film the emergence of Brood II cicadas.  Look for his PBS documentary sometime next year or in 2015.

Who has the most cicadas in our region?


I have continued to fine tune my Brood II cicada coverage map for the Washington, D.C. area. The cicadas have emerged and their locations are now well-defined. They are quite heavy just to the south and west of Washington, D.C.  If you don’t have cicadas in your backyard by now, you may have to wait a few years for Brood X in 2021. (Kevin Ambrose)

I have received over 200 reports of Brood II cicadas during the past few weeks.  Of all the reports, one area seems to stand above the rest regarding high concentrations of cicadas.  That area is Charlottesville, Virginia.  I have included a couple of reports from Charlottesville:

From Elizabeth in Earlysville (near Charlottesville):  I believe I live at the epicenter of the cicada universe. The soil in my yard is pock marked with countless holes where they exited the earth. Thousands (yes!) body husks litter the ground beneath trees and more husks still cling to the sides of hostas, oaks and any other vegetation in my yard. My doors and siding of my home are blanketed with the cicadas waiting (it seems) for me to open a door and they can come inside to escape the heat. At night when I took my dog outside I wore a headlight and they swarmed around me gathering in the light. Last night as we laid in bed we heard cicadas beating themselves against the windows attracted by the light. And the noise, what an understatement, it is a constant buzz… and if one makes it into the house they complain even louder until we find it and put it outside. I don’t kill anything, insects included… so it has been a constant job to not kill any cicada unintentionally especially when they get tangled in my hair while walking in our woods.  When are these guests going to leave?

My response:  Wow, Elizabeth, that sounds kind of cool!  They will be gone in July but they will leave a mess.

From C in Charlottesville: What’s the latest prediction for the cicada population? I live in Charlottesville, Va and there are millions and millions where I am located. How much longer will they “whirl” and carry on during these hot days?  When do they do their damage to the small tree branches?  Thanks, C

My response: Expect maximum cicada activity for another two weeks, then a slow decline into July.  By mid-July, they should be gone. The ends of tree branches will be damaged within the next few weeks when females bore holes to deposit their eggs. Cover very young trees, but most mature trees can handle the natural pruning.

For our cicada-interested readers, if you want to experience cicadas and see some history at the same time, go visit Monticello or the University of Virginia in the next week or two.  You probably won’t be disappointed.

If you want a shorter drive from Washington, check out the Manassas National Battlefield Park.  I talked to several tourists at the Stone Bridge who lived in Maryland and drove down to Manassas just to see the cicadas.

Let us know if you have any unusual cicada experiences or observations, or if the cicadas are particularly dense where you live.

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Dan Stillman · June 5, 2013