The Kiwi cicada expert who's just 11 years old

by Ken Downie / 22 September, 2018
Olly Hills, 11, with the butterfly net he uses to fossick for cicadas. Photo/Ken Downie.

Olly Hills, 11, with the butterfly net he uses to fossick for cicadas. Photo/Ken Downie.

RelatedArticlesModule - related

The cicada kid

Hamilton entomologist Olly Hills isn’t in high school yet, but he’s already a world expert.

A fearless Olly Hills has never had any problems with creepy crawlies. “When I was just a little kid, a grasshopper landed on my face,” he recalls. “I didn’t scream or recoil; I just picked it up and examined it.”

The Hamilton schoolboy is 11 now and still mad about insects. He knows something about most of them, but one is a particular stand-out favourite. “Cicadas are cool!” he says. So cool he’s written the first-ever field guide on the 42 named species found here – from the Southern snoring to the Northern dusky.

“I used to harp on to my mum, ‘Why is there so little on the New Zealand cicada?’” says Olly, who’s in Year 7 at Berkley Normal Middle School. “So one day she just sat me down in front of the computer.”

He started to compile his own research, and then set off with his mother, Tara, on an expedition that took them all over the country. His two little sisters – Emma, eight, and Anna, five, who “don’t like insects at all” – came along for the ride.

Olly was only 10 when Cicadas of New Zealand was published, featuring detailed descriptions of each insect, colour photographs, and information on how and where to catch them. When this year’s Entomological Society of New Zealand conference was held in Whanganui, he was given his own 25-minute slot.

Different cicadas make different sounds, he explains. Some snore, chirp, clap, click or bray; he loves them all. “Did you know that the high-pitched chorus of some cicadas like the April green can only be heard by children?” he asks. “I’ve tested this out on my mum.”

His favourite species is the Campbell’s cicada, which is easy to catch, not very aggressive, and seems to have a longer life expectancy. He even kept one as a pet and it lasted about three weeks. That’s not bad for a cicada, given some species can live underground for years in their nymph stage and emerge as adults “only to live for a matter of days, or weeks if they’re lucky”.

At home, Olly also has a couple of pet frogs, some chickens and rabbits to look after. He loves David Attenborough’s Planet Earth TV series, too; he sent Attenborough a copy of his book “and got a handwritten reply”.

However, it’s not all serious entomology at the Hills residence. Olly admits he’s been known to use his love of bugs as a weapon of terror, mainly against his sisters. “I’ve played all sorts of tricks on them, like placing dead cockroaches on the door handle of my room,” he laughs. “That keeps them out.” And he once removed a spider from his sister’s room after she promised to do his share of the chores.

Armed with a butterfly net, he fossicks for cicadas in the reserve behind their house and recently discovered a new species of red-tailed cicada – although he’d have to publish a scientific paper on it first before getting naming rights. “Most likely it would be named after a local entomologist,” he says.

And despite his extensive research, Olly reckons he still hasn’t seen or heard every cicada in New Zealand yet, so that’s his next mission. “I’m planning another trip to the South Island, and perhaps another edition of my book next year.”

This article was first published in the August 2018 issue of North & South.

Latest

Medical specialist and writer Eileen Merriman's prescription for success
104920 2019-04-25 00:00:00Z Profiles

Medical specialist and writer Eileen Merriman's pr…

by Clare de Lore

Eileen Merriman doesn’t have to dig too deep to find the angst, humour and drama for her award-winning novels.

Read more
We still remember them: The best in new Anzac Day reading
105020 2019-04-25 00:00:00Z Books

We still remember them: The best in new Anzac Day…

by Russell Baillie

The tide of great New Zealand books on the world wars shows no sign of going out. Russell Baillie reviews four new Anzac books.

Read more
Fine lines: New Anzac books and graphic novels for kids
105028 2019-04-25 00:00:00Z Books

Fine lines: New Anzac books and graphic novels for…

by Ann Packer

A telegraph “boy”, heroic animals and even shell-shock make for engaging reads for children.

Read more
Keeping up appearances: The challenging job of restoring NZ's lighthouses
104978 2019-04-25 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Keeping up appearances: The challenging job of res…

by Fiona Terry

Ensuring lighthouses stay “shipshape” isn’t a job for the faint-hearted.

Read more
The former major reuniting service medals with their rightful owners
105015 2019-04-25 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

The former major reuniting service medals with the…

by Fiona Terry

Service medals are being reunited with their rightful owners thanks to former major Ian Martyn and his determined research.

Read more
PM announces 'Christchurch Call' to end use of social media for terrorism
104952 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Politics

PM announces 'Christchurch Call' to end use of soc…

by Noted

A meeting aims to see world leaders and CEOs of tech companies agree to a pledge called the ‘Christchurch Call’.

Read more
Red Joan: Judi Dench almost saves Soviet spy story from tedium
104942 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Movies

Red Joan: Judi Dench almost saves Soviet spy story…

by James Robins

The fictionalised account of a British woman who spied for the Soviet Union is stiflingly quaint.

Read more
What to watch on TV this Anzac Day
104749 2019-04-24 00:00:00Z Television

What to watch on TV this Anzac Day

by Fiona Rae

Māori TV once again devotes the day to Anzac programming, including a live broadcast from Gallipoli.

Read more