How To Catch Cicadas
News Category: Cicada How To
How To Catch Cicadas
I have been asked several times how I am able to catch and study so many Cicadas. Well, I tell you, it isn't easy. It takes patience and perseverance. If you lack either then you can forget it because a lot of leg work is involved when catching Cicadas for collections or for study.
In the beginning I tried various methods that didn't pan out well. Since Cicadas in Massachusetts have a tendency to stay very high up in trees, unless I wanted to climb a tree there was no way for me to catch a Cicada. Besides, with my luck, chances are I'd take the time to climb a tree and by the time I got to the cicada, it would no doubt fly off.
So, I had to rethink my strategy and the methods that I employ when hunting and catching Cicadas. But before we get into the nitty-gritty there are some things you should keep in mind first.
Update 3/15/11: Please be aware that only one method of catching cicadas is discussed in this article. Since its writing multiple methods are available to you for catching cicadas which will be discussed in future articles. For now, this article deals with catching cicadas as they emerge from the ground as nymphs and is still a valid method for catching cicadas.
Step 1 - The Tools of the Trade
Remember when you were little and your mother used to tell you "Cleanliness is Next to Godliness?" Well, a similar rule applies when hunting and catching cicadas but its more like "Preparedness is Next to Godliness". Whenever I go out hunting for cicadas there are a few things I take with me on every trip and each are outlined below:
Wide-mouthed Mason Jars - You know those canning jars that are used for preserving peaches and pears and things? They make good jars to put specimens in. I always take two to three jars with me. Inside each jar I put in some sticks for cicadas to perch on. I also poke holes in the supplied covers that come with the mason jars. You should do the same. I prefer the 1 quart canning jars like the ones in the picture to the left. You can get these canning jars at Target or Walmart.
Plastic Tray - These trays can be found at Walmart and are divided into several different compartments. I use these trays just in case I should stumble upon a Cicada nymph that I need to hold for a while before it can molt. These plastic trays are ideal because I have learned through trial and error that a Cicada nymph will not molt if it cannot anchor it's legs. Since the trays are smooth plastic they are not able to anchor so cicada nymphs won't molt. I have been successful in holding Cicada nymphs up to 2 hours before I allowed them to anchor on a stick or something in order to molt.
Warnings about Collecting Cicada Nymphs
- You should keep an eye on the captured nymphs in the tray from time to time. If one is turned on it's back or side, put it on its legs again. Cicadas are not the brightest animals in the forest and will think (when on their back) that they are properly anchored to something and will molt. By putting them back on their legs, you will stop them from molting. You do not want a cicada nymph to molt in the tray, it will damage their fragile wings because they will not be able to expand to their full extent.
- Always keep your cicada nymphs separated from each other. If you don't they will try to latch onto each other and try to molt that way. If this happens it can get very messy. This is why a plastic tray separated into compartments works best.
A Small Note Pad - Whenever I go anywhere, I always take notes as to where I found a particular cicada specimen. I also note whether it is male or female and what species, what kind of object I found it on whether tree, bush or the ground, as well as the date and time I found it. Also I note all my activities down in the note pad. This helps me when I run behind with updating my web site and organizing my data. You can never have too much data.
Mosquito Repellant - This is essential. Chances are, you'll be hunting and catching cicadas in very hot weather, and usually in high humidity. After a rain fall really brings out the mosquitoes in droves. I use any type of mosquito repellant that has a Deet content of at least 30%. This works great. I spray my entire body, front and back. Then I spray repellant into the palms of my hands and then rub my hands on my face and neck. I also spray my baseball hat which I wear everywhere. Bring mosquito repellant. Trust me you'll thank me for the suggestion.
Flashlights - I like to bring two types of flashlights with me. The type you have to carry in your hand or sometimes when you need both hands free, the type you wear on your head. I actually like to have two as one will be for backup. You can pick these up at any sporting goods store. I especially like the hands free one because quite frankly, it's hands free. When you are collecting specimens, especially at night, its always good to bring a flashlight. Most of the time that is when cicadas emerge though I have been successful in obtaining Cicadas during all times of the day.
Camera - Wherever I go, my camera goes. I always like to take pictures of Cicadas and small movies. Most digital cameras these days offer you a choice of taking straight pictures, movies and sound recordings. I always like to take a few photos of each specimen that I collect just to add the info to the data that I collect in my note pad as above pictures always help support your data. I also like to photograph other insects as well. A good camera with a macro lense works best when taking photographs of small specimens.
Spare Batteries - For your camera and flash lights of course.
Bottled Water - I like to carry around a bottle of water to keep hydrated. By the time you realize it you can walk many miles while looking for cicadas and if its especially humid out, you can sweat quite a lot so it's always good to bring some bottled water with you.
Hand-held GPS (Optional) - Using a hand-held gps is convenient so that you can mark the exact location of where you found your specimen. Later when back home, this information can be added to a collection label and ultimately entered into a database.
A Backpack - What else were you going to carry all the above stuff in? You're arms? I have a backpack with many different pockets and compartments. Some compartments are for the jars and trays, one for the flashlights and all the ancillary stuff mentioned above. Organize your backpack so that you can easily get to everything.
Now that we are prepared and we have all the necessary equipment, it is now time for the nitty-gritty.
Step 2 - Watch and Listen
The first thing you need to do is listen for the calls of male Cicadas. Its the males that actually do the singing and do it to attract a female for mating. The female makes no noise at all. Its pointless to look for Cicadas if you can't hear the males singing in the trees yet. You can expect Cicadas here in Massachusetts to start emerging at the beginning of July then they start calling about a week after that. This is for the Tibicen genus of Cicadas which include Tibicen lyricen and Tibicen canicularis. These two species are what this whole web site is about obviously. These are the only two Tibicen species of Cicadas that I have ever found here in Massachusetts (so far).
Update 3/15/11: - Actually Massachusetts as well as New England has several different species of Tibicen cicadas which have been found after the writing of this article. They are: Tibicen auletes, Tibicen canicularis, Tibicen tibicen, Tibicen lyricen, Tibicen linnei, Okanagana rimosus, Okanagana canadensis and Magicicada septendecim.
If you are like me and want to get industrious, there are two other genus of Cicadas which come out in early to mid June, these are the Okanagana species of Cicadas and include Okanagana rimosa and/or Okanagana canadensis. While I have never found a live specimen, I did find some cast off nymph shells last year and I heard the call of O. canadensis in the Western part of Massachusetts in 2005.
Update 3/15/11: - Okanagana rimosus has been found in several areas in New England and voucher specimens have been collected. You can learn more about the Okanagana species of Cicadas if you click here.
Step 3 - Time to do Some Scouting
Ok, now you have heard cicada males singing for females in the trees so it looks like the cicada season is in full swing. Now it is time to scout around and look for signs of their emergences.
But first, you have a decision to make. Where do you look? Well, that's an easy one. You want to look in areas that are pubic like baseball fields, schools, parks and of course my favorite, cemeteries. Why these and not the woods where there are tons of trees? Well, what you want to look for are signs of their cast-off nymph shells or "exuvia" like the one pictured to the left. Since cicadas will molt anywhere that is convenient, you will be hard pressed to find cicadas on trees in the woods because chances are they will molt under a bush or low ground growth which means you will have to do a lot of bending over in order to search for them. This can get very time consuming and also get you very dizzy and a sore back :).
If you absolutely must go on private property, always ask permission first. I'd hate for something to happen to you just because you didn't ask permission first.
The reason I like parks, cemeteries, schools and the like is because the grounds in these areas are usually well maintained and they are opened to the public. There is little undergrowth to worry about. This limits where a cicada can actually molt which is when you really want to try to catch a cicada. Trying to catch a cicada when it is a fully flying adult would be like doing open-heart surgery with a butter knife, virtually impossible and it's not safe to climb trees.
Since the grounds are maintained in these areas as mentioned above you can concentrate your search for exuvia on trees. Cicada females like to lay their eggs in nice places like this because usually these areas are protected and the trees are usually old and well established. Cemeteries have usually been around for 10s of years and the trees within are usually older so they are your best bet. If you plan to visit a cemetery then you may want to also look on the headstones as well.
Step 4 - Target, Target, Target
Once you find signs of exuvia, it's time to target these areas. Targeting is the key. Always remember where you see the exuvia because your odds will increase that you will be able to come back to these same areas and find cicadas when they are molting. Take notes, that's what the notepad is for!!
When to Search for Cicadas
Now that you have found areas with plenty of exuvia, what you want to do now is try to obtain a cicada when it is in the middle of molting. This is probably the best and only time you will ever be able to see them or catch them. When a Cicada is molting it will look similar to the picture on the left.
The key here is timing. You may have to return to the same areas at different times of the day. I like to go at all times of the day because I have been successful at finding cicada specimens at virtually every time. However, don't get too upset if the first few times you go out you are unsuccessful. I've gone anywhere from 8:00 am in the morning to as late as 1:00 am the following day. Going out in two to three hour intervals. You need to have patience.
When is the Optimum Time to Search?
If I had a choice as to when the best times I would go out to catch cicadas I'd have to say any time after 8:00 pm. Cicadas like the cover of darkness and there are less predators around. Also after rain storms seems to be a good time because Cicada nymphs do not like to be wet and the they will be eager to emerge from the ground. Be sure to bring your flash light and plenty of mosquito repellant if you search at night.
Try to look everywhere you think a cicada might wish to molt. I usually look on the ground to see if I see nymphs crawling after just emerging from underground. I'll usually walk completely around a tree and looking up at least 9 feet or so scanning a tree trunk up and down as I walk around it. Be sure to also check the underside of leaves in low branches. Cicadas love to molt underneath leaves and branches extending from tree trunks.
I Found One!! Now What? - When to Collect Your Specimen
If you happen to spot a cicada in the middle of it's molt process, you'll have to wait until it is completely finished. It is important for you to wait and to not touch the specimen at all while it is molting or you will damage it! Depending upon what point in the molting process you find the molting cicada in will depend on how long you will have to wait for it to finish.
Be prepared to wait on average for about an hour. During this time, you can perhaps walk around to try to find other cicadas molting or you can snap pictures or take notes in your notebook, it is up to you.
For reference, in the Cicadas 101 section of this web site there is information on the entire Cicada molting process for viewing. Just memorize the images on this page in order to know exactly at what stage the molting cicada you found is at.
There is only one point at which it is safe to handle a newly emerged cicada. Don't worry it's not whether or not they bite but actually when they are the easiest to handle so as not to damage them. During the first few hours after molting, the cicada is in what is known as the "teneral" stage. That is, it is actually soft and pink and green and may feel actually kind of wet. Not to worry though, since Cicadas are arthropods and all arthropods molt at one time or another, this is normal. Your specimen over the next 24 hours will harden and turn darker in color.
The picture to the left shows how a cicada looks after it has completed its molting process. See how the wings are folded "roof like" over it's body? This is when it is safe to pick up. However, there is a method to employ when picking up a cicada. You must be very careful not to touch the wings as they are even more fragile than tissue paper and you risk damaging their wings if you so much as touch them the slightest bit especially the wing tips so be very careful.
Gently grab the cicada with thumb and forefinger at the point where the wing hinges are which are located behind the big black eyes. This is the safest place to touch them when they are still teneral. The picture to the right demonstrates the proper method to pick up a newly molted cicada teneral. See how in the picture I am avoiding the wings at all costs? You must do the same.
Now all you have to do is gently place your cicada in one of your mason jars with the sticks as described above. Be careful not to bang the wings when placing it in the jar on the stick! It will happily find a spot on the stick to hang off of to completely harden. Tomorrow you will be able to handle your specimen a lot easier because it won't be as fragile. You can put up to three different specimens in the same jar any more than that and it might get too crowded.
Do not leave the jar in direct sunlight or where the heat can build up within the jar. This will be very bad. Some times when you pick up a cicada it may pee. Don't be alarmed, it probably pees because it is frightened. But this moisture is very important to a cicada and if it cannot replace what it has expelled soon, it may die especially in a high heat area. The Mason Jars are only a temporary storage device. What I do is transfer my specimens to a terrarium that has plenty of plants in glass jars with water. The cicadas will eventually feed on these plants.
Most people go through their lives never being able to find a cicada while it is molting as it is considered quite rare but if you follow the above steps, then you shouldn't have a problem and consider yourself lucky to be one of the few to witness this great event. It just takes patience and perseverance. You never know, if you're like me you'll meet some interesting people in your travels and even make new friends.
If I think of anything else to add or if you would like to ask questions then please feel free to contact me using the Contact Me link above and to the left.
If you have comments or questions regarding this article please but them in the comments form below. We will get back to you. Good luck catching Cicadas of your own.