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Cicada Mania: The Entomologists’ ‘Super Bowl’

June 19, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The life cycle of the cicada is unique in the insect world. They bring a chorus of deafening noise before spending 17 years underground. What's all the buzz about? Science correspondent Miles O'Brien reports on the swarms of spectators and scientists who emerge in search of the noisy insects.

JEFFREY BROWN: And next: one of nature’s fascinating and deafening spectacles.

Quiet, leafy neighborhoods suddenly sound more like airports and look like scenes from a bad horror movie.

NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien tells the tale.

MILES O’BRIEN: These boys likely do not know it, but they are playing with some bugs that are older than they are. The periodical cicada invasion will stop soon enough, but the once-every-17th-summer event is impossible to ignore.

TATIANA LOWE, Dealing With Cicadas: This is like a bit much. It’s like every day you hear this racket, and then at night, it gets quiet, and then in the morning, you see all the dead ones everywhere. It’s pretty gross.

MILES O’BRIEN: Of course, beauty is in the compound eyes of the beholder. And like them or not, with the emergence of one of the big East Coast broods, the cicadas are ready for their close-ups.

This is a scene from “Return of the Cicadas.” For six years now, filmmaker Samuel Orr has been capturing cicadas in spectacular, close-up, time-lapse fashion as they emerge from the ground, climb, molt, reproduce, and then die.

Sam is, naturally, a big cicada fan.

SAMUEL ORR, Filmmaker: I find it amusing a bit that people are afraid of cicadas. It makes as much sense to be afraid of a cicada that — than it does to be afraid of a butterfly. I find the nymphs that are coming out of the ground, the stage before they became adults with wings, I — you know, not to sound silly or glib, but I — at this point, I find them to be adorable.

MILES O’BRIEN: The cicada life cycle is unique in the insect world and just plain strange in any other.

We see them on the sunny side of the soil for just a few weeks as their adult lives begin and end amid the unmistakable chorus. But, for the remainder of their 17-year lifespan, they are underground in the dark, sucking on the roots of trees. And you thought your life was boring.

In the world of entomology, is there a better narrative than this?

MICHAEL RAUPP, University of Maryland: This is kind of our Super Bowl. This is — this is a blockbuster for us. It’s got birth. It’s got death. It’s got romance. It’s got sex. It’s got everything.

In a span of about four weeks, the whole thing is over.

MILES O’BRIEN: Entomologist Michael Raupp is the self-described bug man at the University of Maryland at College Park. We met at a graveyard in Northern Virginia that was alive and humming with cicadas.

MICHAEL RAUPP: That little lady’s on her way up the treetop just now.

MILES O’BRIEN: She is part of periodical cicada Brood II, which emerges every 17 years from Georgia to Connecticut. It is one of 19 broods of periodical cicadas across the U.S. which crawl out of the soil every 17 or 13 years.

MICHAEL RAUPP: They will mate. Females will lay their eggs in the tips of the branches, and then the little tiny nymphs are going to tumble down from maybe 60 or 80 feet from the sky to branches, hit the ground, then burrow underneath for another 17 years.

MILES O’BRIEN: And so the circuitous cicada circle of life continues.

MICHAEL RAUPP: Is that a buy in my eye?

MILES O’BRIEN: The insects do not seem fearful of large creatures, do not bite or sting. Their main defense mechanism? Sheer numbers. Scientists call the cicada strategy for survival of the species predator satiation.

MICHAEL RAUPP: It’s to simply emerge in such massive numbers simultaneously that you fill the gullet of every predator that wants to eat you in a given location, but there are still enough left to carry on for the species.

MILES O’BRIEN: For their predators, the cicadas offer an all-you-can-eat buffet of epic proportions. Scientists have estimated as many as a million-and-a-half individuals in a single acre.

JOHN COOLEY, University of Connecticut: Watch how he stops and listens. This one turned toward the sound. They’re going to both turn.

MILES O’BRIEN: John Cooley is a researcher at the University of Connecticut. And when the weather warms, he too, makes his own emergence to observe, map and commune with the creatures.

JOHN COOLEY: And you see, he’s my friend for life now. He’s interested. It is as if a female is around here somewhere.

MILES O’BRIEN: I guess you could call him a cicada whisperer. Cooley is trying to make a map of the Brood II emergence.

It’s the first time this brood has come up for air in the era of social networking and crowdsourcing, so he has drummed up his own human wave: thousands of citizen scientists who are charting the cicadas, hoping an accurate map will emerge.

JOHN COOLEY: So, the mapping project is an attempt to go out with GPS units and make records saying, on this date, at this time, under these conditions, I saw this many cicadas, so that, in the future, we can see if that has changed, and then we can also look at the broods and have a very good idea of where they actually are.

MILES O’BRIEN: David Rothenberg is also very interested in where the cicadas are. A musician who gets his inspiration from the natural world, we caught up with him in New Paltz, N.Y., hunting for, well, I guess you could call them backup singers.

DAVID ROTHENBERG, New Jersey Institute of Technology: Today, I am seeking the best sound, seeking the best sound of singing 17-year cicadas to make some music with them, to collect some for a show we’re playing tonight. We’re going to have live cicadas performing with us.

MILES O’BRIEN: Rothenberg knows what he is looking for and listening to.

DAVID ROTHENBERG: What you’re hearing at first just sounds like noise, like white noise. It’s just noise, until you start to listen and you realize that, oh, what’s that? You’re hearing a wash of noise that synchronizes. It comes up and then down.

And that’s Magicicada cassini. It’s the smaller of the three species that comes out when the periodic cicadas come out, but it’s the loudest. The second sound is like a tone. And that’s Magicicada septendecim. And those individuals are making this sound are going, “pharaoh, pharaoh.”

And then there’s a third species called Magicicada septendecula that’s going …

MILES O’BRIEN: Rothenberg has created and performed music with birds, whales and now bugs.

DAVID ROTHENBERG: Some people think it’s the most absurd of these projects, but others think it’s the most obvious, because this is just such a musical sound. And a human can find a way into it even with a sound that’s ostensibly totally different. Let’s just see what happens.

MILES O’BRIEN: Can you think of another insect that would prompt a quirky scene like this?

Cicada mania is real. Sam Orr ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund a feature-length film on cicadas. He asked for $3,000 dollars and within a few weeks had more than 20 grand in pledges. Why all the buzz?

SAMUEL ORR: It’s not often, at least it seems to me, that it feels like you can make eye contact with an insect.

MILES O’BRIEN: Back at the cemetery, with bug man Mike Raupp, I tested another theory on why periodical cicadas seem to resonate so roundly with humans.

It’s a benchmark that nature offers us, a 17-year benchmark, and you can’t help but think of your own mortality, can’t you?

MICHAEL RAUPP: You’re absolutely right. I mark my career by the emergence of the next cicada. I have had the good fortune to witness several of these, but I know, fundamentally, that I have only got a couple of these broods left.

MILES O’BRIEN: So, here’s to seeing the next one, and on the sunny side of the cicadas, if you please.

JEFFREY BROWN: Online, more music, David Rothenberg playing his clarinet, with cicadas as his backup singers. That’s on our Science page.