Now that Winer is fast approaching, my thoughts wistfully return to my favourite time of year – the Summer – when life explodes out all around – sometimes it literally jumps out at us! Enter the humble grasshopper, who can be spotted taking a flying leap (or several) during those warmer months of the year.
Grasshoppers are well equipped for this athleticism, due to their strong hind legs, which have especially springy knees, giving them the ability to jump up to 20 times their own length and 10 times their own height – that’s some leap! They launch themselves with such velocity that they pull up to 20g! This comes in very handy when you’re escaping a predator; or even if you’re just wanting to get on the move in a hurry.
Although they’re most efficient hoppers, it’s not just this skill that grasshoppers are famed for – they’re also well known for their chirping song that conjures up images of warm summer evenings (ah!); but what’s the reason they like to produce these chirruping melodies?
Well firstly, it may be to advertise to other grasshoppers that they have found a favourable habitat. It is also a means for the boys to impress the ladies by serenading them with harmonious tunes. The ladies respond, often mimicking the male’s song and hence it can get pretty noisy when lots of these critters get going together!
Once courtship is complete, the female lays her eggs, which hatch into nymphs that grow and develop, growing bigger and moulting around six times as they do so until they become the adult hoppers.
The official term for their song is stridulation and is created by the grasshopper rubbing its spikey hind legs against the edges of its fore wings. We’re not the first to enjoy their melodies, as the song of the grasshoppers has been a sound that has embraced the earth for a long time – grasshoppers are some of the most ancient herbivore insects, dating back as far as the Triassic period – about 250 million years!
Grasshoppers have two sets of wings, the hind wings are primarily designed with flight in mind, whilst the front ones are most commonly used for making music. They boast compound eyes, which give them excellent all round vision; with three simple eyes to detect light and dark. They have strong mouthparts to munch through all that plant material, long antennae, which provide smell and taste and they actually hear through their abdomens – must make it rather noisy when they’re at full volume!!
Grasshoppers feature on many creatures’ menus, including ants, wasps, spiders, birds and mammals such as cats, dogs and – yep – humans (grasshopper kebab anyone?) Whilst they may not appear appetising to some, as we are being encouraged to reduce our meat consumption, grasshoppers are now being farmed to be used as protein supplements in food (now with added grasshopper! mmm!)
As well as being able to jump out of the way of harm, grasshoppers have other means of defence to call upon: some use camouflage to hide away and others deploy bright patterns to warn off would be diners; whilst some will even spit in defence (rude!)
So, what’s the difference between a grasshopper and a locust? Well, grasshoppers belong of a family called Califera. Whereas, their infamous cousins belong to the Archididae family (aka short-horned grasshoppers). They have that well known (and dreaded) behavioural state of forming swarms that have plagued the land since biblical times.
One of the largest recorded swarms was thought to contain around 3 and a half trillion indivduals and measure 110 miles (180km) wide!!
If conditions are favourable (mild winters, successive drought conditions and warm sunshine) then locust numbers can increase to swarm proportions, which sees them consume all available plant material wherever they land. This can result in loss of crops, leading to famines and population displacement. Locust activity is monitored globally and controls are used to help prevent large swarms developing – a biological control with the catchy name of entomophathogenic (!) fungus has also been used to keep the numbers in check.
Not just in plagues have we long had a close relationship with these creatures: they are mentioned in holy texts of the Koran and the Bible. They also appear in literature: there is the Ant and the Grasshopper – one of Aesop’s fables – which tells of a complacent and lazy grasshopper, who makes fun of a busy, forward thinking ant – the grasshopper subsequently comes a cropper when winter arrives. On a similar theme, grasshoppers were cast as the villains in Disney’s film, A Bug’s Life – so they’re not always being viewed in a favourable light. Likewise, the grasshopper has been seen as a symbol for restlessness or even unfaithfulness, we well as for extravagance and misfortune.
On a brighter note, however, some cultures see these guys as a sign of good luck and prosperity.
Whatever you think of them, during the summer at least, they’re bound to get your attention!