Window on Nature
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
Grasshoppers are part of the orthoptera order, which also includes crickets and katydids. Members of the order are recognized for their singing ability, usually performed by courting males wishing to make their presence known. Another commonality is that offspring do not go through a larval or pupal stage. Once an immature grasshopper or cricket emerges from its egg, the only difference between it and an adult is its size.
Even though Kaye grew up in small-town agricultural America, she couldn’t believe there could be more than 10,000 species of the hoppers spread nearly everywhere in the world, except for the North and South poles. Approximately 400 species inhabit the Western United States, hanging out in fields and meadows, backyards, and city parks “” just about anywhere they can find enough to eat. Admittedly, some grasshopper species consume a limited number of plants, but countless others are happy to munch on anything growing and green. A hoard of grasshoppers can gobble up entire crops of alfalfa, cotton, corn, and other grains. Little wonder that farmers sneer when they hear someone exclaiming how beautiful, graceful, and fascinating these insects are.
Grasshopper predators include ants (for ground-dwelling species), beetles, birds, snakes, and lizards. Flies pose a different type of problem for grasshoppers. A female fly may lay her eggs on or near grasshopper eggs so that, when the hoppers hatch, the young flies can eat them.
Grasshoppers don’t hang around to argue with a potential predator. Instead, they escape either by jumping into the air and flying away, or by taking cover in denser vegetation. A grasshopper can leap up to 20 times its body length. Let’s assume that a grasshopper has finished molting and growing, reaching a size of 3 inches long. At that size it can be expected to leap 5 feet! And if that isn’t far enough to get away from a predator, it can open its wings and fly.
Another defense mechanism used by grasshoppers, which many of us discovered as children, is that it will expel a brown liquid, often called “tobacco juice.” This is designed to warn potential predators that the insects not only taste bad but might be poisonous.
A grasshopper’s body has three main sections: a head, a thorax, and an abdomen. A stiff shell covers its body to protect it against predators and the weather. On the head, the antennae, which grow forward and then curve upward, are used to “smell” something it plans to eat. In addition, the fingerlike palpi on the sides of the mouth serve as taste buds.
Grasshoppers are way ahead of humans when it comes to eyesight: they have five eyes. You’ll easily notice the large compound eyes on the sides of the head. Each consists of thousands of single lenses, allowing a grasshopper to see to the front, sides, and behind. A grasshopper also has three small single eyes, one at the base of each antenna, and one on the forehead.
The middle body portion, the thorax, anchors the grasshopper’s six legs as well as its two sets of wings. The forward wings are smaller and tough. They’re designed to cover and protect the larger, thinner flying wings. As for the six legs, they’re put to good use. The front legs come in handy for carrying or holding food while eating. The oversized hind legs are used for hopping. That’s why grasshoppers can make such long leaps.
The back end of the body, the abdomen, has 11 segments, each having several uses. Reproduction is one and breathing is another. On the lower sides of each segment are tiny breathing pores called spiracles. They branch to all parts of the body, providing oxygen to the cells and carrying away carbon dioxide.
Female grasshoppers have sharp parts at the rear called ovipositors, which are needed to dig holes in the ground or plant fiber to make a hiding place for eggs. When a female lays an egg mass, it’s covered with a sticky substance that holds together as many as 120 eggs. Before covering up her eggs, she spreads more of the substance over them. It hardens into a waterproof covering that entomologists call a pod.
After breeding and egg-laying are finished, the parents’ job is done. The eggs hatch into nymphs, which look more or less like little adults without wings. They’ll molt a half-dozen times or more over the summer, growing into adult grasshoppers.
When an abundance of grasshoppers are around (call it an infestation, if you prefer), they often represent several species. They either have different eating habits or will compete for whatever is available. A study of grassland species in Colorado, Wyoming, and Arizona counted more than 50 grasshoppers of 24 species per square yard in Colorado; 31 grasshoppers (16 species) in Wyoming; and 52 grasshoppers (13 species) in Arizona. Those had to be well-populated square yards “” certainly not a place we’d like to be.
Grasshoppers put in a long day. As cold-blooded creatures they need to warm up before becoming active, so they awaken as soon as it is light enough to see. A ground-dwelling hopper makes its way to a sunny spot, while other types warm up by moving around in the grass or forbs until they find a branch or stem on which to bask. Some must either climb up farther in the grass or jump down to the ground. Even on a sunny day, they usually bask for one to two hours before shifting into food-gathering mode.
After an active day, grasshoppers often take in more sun in late afternoon. Before dark they’ll be tucked in their nightly quarters to sleep. On rainy and cold days, they hunker down and wait for the weather to change.
Entomologists have found a considerable variety of eating habits in the grasshopper clan. Some species climb around the host plant, munching on leaves, petals, buds, or soft seeds. Others prefer to eat with their feet firmly planted on the ground. They cut off a tasty morsel, let it drop to the ground, and hop down to where it landed.
Ground-dwelling grasshopper species find their food on terra firma, dining on seeds, dead bugs, and tasty leaves. Sometimes they even grab a leaf severed by another hopper.
Wherever they are, grasshoppers are fastidious about what they eat. First they lower their antennae and tap the leaf (why they do this is not known). Next, they taste a tiny piece of the leaf; apparently, their taste buds tell them whether it is harmful or safe to eat. Only then will they chow down.
We’ve always enjoyed seeing these insects, even though we’ve passed the stage of trying to catch them. Their beauty, anatomy, and actions all feed our love for nature.