Many Grasshoppers

 

(This 1232nd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on November 2, 2014.)

 

Twenty-six centuries ago the Greek fabulist Aesop told the story about the grasshopper and the ant. You know how it goes: The grasshopper hops about and sings to its heart's content while the ant toils storing up food. "Why bother about winter?" asks the grasshopper; "we have plenty of food right now." But, of course, winter arrives and the starving grasshopper sees the ant feeding on the food it has set aside. Aesop's moral: It is best to prepare for the days of necessity.

 

I thought of that familiar tale as I walked through a meadow a few weeks ago. At every step I found myself disturbing grasshoppers, sending them sailing off into the higher grass. What would happen to these insects when the season turned? If Aesop's fable reflects reality, surely we will have no more grasshoppers next year.

 

The answer I should have known is straightforward. Grasshoppers live as adults only about two months in our region. Like many other insects and as Aesop told us, adult grasshoppers here die when winter sets in. The life of the species is carried forward in eggs the female has produced and buried an inch or two deep in the soil or leaf litter.

 

The 15 to 150 eggs each female lays at one time are combined into a kind of pod by a sticky substance she secretes. But that is not all: she can produce up to two dozen of these pods. Thus a single female can generate several thousand offspring. No wonder I was surrounded by grasshoppers in that field.

 

This is, of course, nature's way at the bottom of the food chain. Produce huge numbers because the survival chance of each individual is so small. Among the predators who find and feed on these eggs are bee flies, blister beetles and Scelionid wasps among insects; skunks, shrews and moles among mammals; many bird species; as well as salamanders, toads and snakes.

 

 

The egg clusters that make it through their eight month dormancy hatch into nymphs. These look like adults but they have no wings. The nymphs next develop through a series of five intermediate sub-stages called instars before they finally become adults. They change from one instar to the next by shedding their older skin. During this five week period the nymphs feed on the soft plant foliage they readily find.

 

Even the adult grasshopper, now with wings and reproductive organs, continues to grow. It takes about a month for those wings to serve them for flight. It is at this stage when the insects mate to produce the next generation. Too often they also turn to a diet of cereal crops.

 

But then too these insects are preyed upon. Among their predators are Tachinidae flies that lay eggs on nymphs or adults. The larvae that emerge from these eggs burrow their way into the grasshopper's body where they slowly consume its innards.

 

At this point, reading about all those enemies, you may feel sorry for these poor grasshoppers and wish them better times. But beware: you might get your wish and have more of them survive.

 

One species did just that. Small grasshoppers, just over an inch long, inhabited the mountain passes of Colorado, Wyoming and Montana until the mid-19th century. Their name: the Rocky Mountain locust. (Although some authors assign differences between the two, locust and grasshopper are essentially synonyms.)

 

Until the mid-1870s these locusts were uncommon but then they multiplied into billions, flew long distances and devoured crops in a wide swath of our Midwest. Here are some of the things said of them: "A swarm passed over Plattsmouth, Nebraska, in 1875. It was estimated that the swarm was 1800 miles long and at least 110 miles wide." "Sometimes they were so numerous as to darken the sunlight. They settled gradually to the ground, when their voracity soon made itself apparent; whole fields of green corn being destroyed in a single day. Nothing escaped them; there appeared to be nothing they would not eat." "They have eaten lint and decayed wood from the fences, and unpainted houses are gnawed all over." "Families had nothing to eat save what their neighbors gave them, and what game could be caught in a trap, since last fall. In one case a family of six died within six days of each other from the want of food to keep body and soul together."

 

Remarkably, within 30 years this grasshopper species was declared extinct.-- Gerry Rising