Nymphs, generally speaking, emerge soon after sunset. When I look for nymphs, I wait until sunset and start looking around tree roots and on tree trunks. Sometimes it takes hours, but usually, I find one (or many).
Adult cicadas are easiest to find on hot, humid nights in well-lit areas like parking lots and the sides of buildings. You will find them clinging to illuminated walls and crawling on sidewalks. They end up on the ground, often because they fly into the wall and stun themselves. On a hot humid night — 85F or above — I’ll find an excuse (usually frozen desserts) to check the walls of the local supermarket for cicadas.
Cicadas, like many insects, are attracted to (or confused by) lights. There are many theories as to why insects are attracted to lights, and the reasons why probably vary by species. My guess (and this is just a guess) is that cicadas can’t tell day from night, or daylight (sun) from artificial lights, and so they think they’re using light to navigate away from a dark area (a tree trunk, dense brush), and then get very confused because they never seem to get anywhere once they reach the source of the light. I wish I could ask a cicada why.
Prime nighttime cicada location: a well-lit building and macadam parking lot:
Cicadas can damage their skin and innards by fling into and bouncing off walls:
A Neotibicen tibicen clinging to a cinderblock wall:
A Megatibicen auletes crawling on an illuminated sidewalk:
If you go looking for cicadas at night, make sure you have permission to be where you plan to look. Don’t trespass, and have respect for other people’s property.
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Time-lapse videos of insects molting can be as visually fascinating as they are scientifically important. Cicadas are amongst the best insect subjects for time-lapse because they’re relatively large, and depending on where you live, easy to find.
Equipment you’ll need for your time-lapse video:
Lights. I use cheap LED and fluorescent lights. Not enough light and you’ll end up with a grainy video. Too much light and you’ll over-expose the subject and miss some important details. You’ll need a stand or tripod for your lights as well.
A tripod for your camera. You want your camera to be as steady as possible. Hand-holding the camera is not recommended. The molting process takes hours.
A camera. Some cameras have a Time-Lapse mode, but you could also take a photo every 30 seconds or so and use software to assemble the photos into a video. A camera with a large view screen is recommended so you can make adjustments to the lighting and framing of the insect.
A platform for your cicada/insect. If you film outside use the tree the insect decides to molt on. If you film inside, build a structure using tree branches, or other materials the nymph can anchor onto.
Video editing software. Free software works fine, as long as it lets you compile a series of photos into a single video.
I made my own platform out of some driftwood and a 2×4 I had lying around. Cheap but effective. Cicadas need to hang perpendicular to the ground so their wings will properly expand, so your creation needs to allow for that. A lot of people simply use a roll of paper towel.
Skills you’ll need to practice
Patience. Unless you’re a pro who films wildlife all the time, you might need a few tries to get it right.
Learn how to use the Time-Lapse feature of your camera.
Learn how to light a small subject like a cicada.
The ability to stay up late. The entire molting process can take up to 5-6 hours, especially if you want to let the cicada’s wings and body harden a bit. Coffee or tea helps (you, not the cicada).
If you’ve never tried filming a cicada molting before, you can practice lighting, focusing and using the time-lapse features of your camera with a paper model of a cicada. Just draw a cicada onto a small piece of paper, and pin it to a tree. If you know origami, even better.
Finding a specimen
I begin looking for cicada nymphs about 15 minutes after sunset. I find them at the base of trees, or ascending tree trunks. If you plan on filming indoors, or on a custom platform, treat the cicada with care. Be very gentle, and place the cicada nymph in a spacious enclosure — preferably one that allows it to grip, and hang off the side. I transport cicadas in a pop-up butterfly pavilion/habitat — these portable enclosures are made for butterflies, but they work well for other insects, like cicadas. Don’t forget to release the cicada the following day as well.
The overall process for shooting indoors
Set up your rig: platform, lights, camera. Make sure your camera has an empty memory card in it and is charged/plugged in. Make sure all the lights are working. Place a towel or something soft at the base of the platform, in case the cicada falls (it happens).
Collect your specimen. Bring a flashlight and a butterfly pavilion (or similar container). Gently grab the cicada nymph with your fingers and place in the container. do not collect a cicada that has already begun molting. Take some (not a lot) of tree branches with you. You can use the branches to augment your platform.
Place the cicada at the base of the platform. Let it explore and become comfortable. Place it back at the base of the platform if it falls or wanders off.
Once the cicada is ready to molt, it will stay still for a while. This is a good time to get your camera in focus and lights in the right position.
The skin of the back of the nymph will split — look and listen for that. Start time-lapse filming. Example.
Re-frame the camera as necessary to capture the cicada’s wings as they inflate.
An hour after the cicada’s wings move into place (see that happen), you can stop filming, and place the cicada into the safety of the butterfly pavilion — or on a tree outside.
Return the cicada to the outdoors within 12 hours.
Use video editing software to compile the time-lapse frames into a video. I set each frame to 0.2 seconds — experiment with the times.
Add the species of the cicada, the location where you found it, and other comments to the video.
Share your video with friends, family and the world.
The process takes a long time — you might be up until 1 or 2 am in the morning. Be prepared for that.
Film some non-time-lapse video as well. There are key moments during the molting process that happen quickly, like when the cicada pulls its abdomen from its old skin. Having a video of that is nice.
Be prepared to adjust the framing and focus a few times during the shoot. Don’t adjust too much though — just if the cicada’s wings fall out of frame.
The cicada will double its overall size. Its wings will hang downward. Be prepared for that when you frame the shot.
My latest time-lapse video:
Notice how I frame the video.
A non-time-lapse detail:
A video where I used a tree branch to make the molting look more natural
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Today is September 21st, 2017 — the last day of Summer, in central New Jersey. Leaves of maple trees have started to turn scarlet and yellow. Oaks are dropping their acorns. The few, remaining Morning (Neotibicen tibicen tibicen) and Linne’s (Neotibicen linnei) cicadas sound decrepit and tired — like tiny breaking machines, low on fuel and oil. I found one dead Morning cicada lying on a sidewalk — its body crushed. Here in New Jersey, at least, the cicada season is all but over.
Molting Neotibicen tibicen tibicen in Little Silver, NJ. August 26st.
As cicada years go, this one had ups and downs. It wasn’t as awesome as 2016, but I can’t blame the cicadas.
No group cicada hunts this year. My cicada hobby is much more fun when I can share it with other people.
A skunk took over my favorite spot for finding Morning Cicada nymphs.
I had to go on a business trip during what would have been the best weeks for finding nymphs.
I found a new Megatibicen auletes location in Highlands, NJ. The location is about 50 miles north of where I usually find them.
I found more Megatibicen auletes exuvia than ever at the Manchester, NJ location where my friends and I normally hunt for auletes. Normally I find one or two — this year I found dozens. I found no adult specimens, other than those singing in the trees at dusk.
I found a small but productive Neotibicen canicularis location in Little Silver, NJ. This yielded several specimens for a few good photos.
I did find enough exuvia & Morning cicadas that I should be happy.
Here’s some images from this summer:
Neotibicen tibicen tibicen with bad wing. The indigo color is fascinating. August 9th.
A Neotibicen tibicen tibicen found during a lunchtime stroll. September 1st.
A female Neotibicen canicularis found in Little Silver, NJ. August 25th.