Monday, September 7, 2009

Apple #407: Grasshoppers

It's Labor Day weekend, so I'm going to talk about -- what else? -- grasshoppers.

Rather large grasshopper clinging to somebody's window screen
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

Lots of the things to know about grasshoppers are things I dimly remember having learned back in elementary school. Chances are, you learned many of these things, too. So I'll try to mix in a few rogue facts to shake things up a bit.

  • There are more than 1,000 species of grasshoppers in the United States. Worldwide, there are 23,000 different species of grasshoppers.
  • The fact that there are so many different kinds of grasshoppers is one of the reasons it is difficult to control them.
  • Long-horned grasshoppers, with their antennae as long as or longer than their bodies, are generally not as destructive to crops.
  • Short-horned grasshoppers, or those with antennae shorter than their bodies, are all destructive. Some of the havoc these little creatures have wreaked includes:
  • Destroying crops in Utah in 1848 to such an extent that the Mormon settlers were saved only by a flock of seagulls that happened by and ate the bugs that ate their crops. Those bugs were named the Mormon cricket, though it was really a wingless grasshopper.
  • In the 1870s the Rocky Mountain grasshopper migrated across the Great Plains and into Texas, completely stripping the land of all vegetation and leaving only holes in the ground where plants had been. One swarm was so enormous, it darkened the sky for days. If memory serves me right, it is this swarm of locusts that appears in O.E. Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth.
  • There is also, of course, the most famous plague of locusts in the Book of Exodus. "They covered all the ground until it was black. They devoured all that was left after the hail—everything growing in the fields and the fruit on the trees. Nothing green remained on tree or plant in all the land of Egypt" (Ex 10:15).

A swarm of locusts in Mexico, 2004.
(Photo from National Geographic News)

  • Grasshoppers that migrate are generally called locusts. Swarms of locusts may descend and infest a new area, but grasshoppers stay where they are.
  • So a lot of research about grasshoppers focuses on ways to control their population, which makes it seems like the biologists don't like grasshoppers either.

Recently, Australia has been plagued, literally, with locusts. And it all starts right here.
(Photo of desert locusts from Wikimedia, sourced from Fire Earth's blog)

  • Scientists have figured out that grasshopper populations boom after several years of hot, dry summers and warm autumns.
  • One recent theory is that desert locusts -- the kind that are wreaking havoc in Australia and in parts of Africa and the Middle East -- for some reason experience spikes in the amount of serotonin in their systems. The serotonin, the researchers believe, makes the grasshoppers want to socialize with their fellow 'hoppers, so they all start trying to get together and soon that turns into a swarm.
  • Scientists have a few ideas about stuff you can spray on grasshoppers or things you can do to try to keep the number of eggs that hatch down, but not all of their ideas always work and grasshopper outbreaks still happen.
  • Grasshoppers lay their eggs using an ovipositor (remember that word?), which buries the eggs below the ground's surface.

(Diagram of grasshopper anatomy from The Orthoptera of Michigan, CMU)

  • Young grasshoppers are called nymphs.
  • The first nymph to bust out of the egg pod digs a tunnel through the dirt which its later-hatching nymph siblings follow to the surface.
  • The spiracles (remember that word too?) are the openings through which grasshoppers breathe. They've got tracheal tubes -- wind pipes so to speak -- that connect to the spiracles which are sort of like nostrils. Muscles surround the spiracles so the grasshopper can open and close them.
  • The brown liquid that grasshoppers spit out when you try to catch them -- lots of people call it tobacco spit -- is really partially digested food and semi-toxic digestive juices. They're trying to freak you out with it and get you to drop them.
  • Only the male grasshoppers "sing."
  • Contrary to the Western perspective, the Chinese regard the locust or grasshopper as a symbol of longevity, abundance, and forward-thinking.
  • But if you're still feeling defeated by the number of grasshoppers eating your stuff, you could always pour yourself a grasshopper, which has creme de menthe liqueur, white creme de cacao, and heavy cream.

(Photo from Felicia's Speakeasy, which also includes instructions about how to turn a Grasshopper into a Dirty Girl Scout.)

  • Or you could put all that into a grasshopper pie, which also adds whipped cream, marshmallows, and an Oreo cookie crust.
  • Once you've got your grasshopper drink and grasshopper pie, you could settle in to watch a few episodes of Kung Fu, starring the erstwhile David Carradine. His character, Caine, was called grasshopper. He earned this epithet when very young and his Master Po demonstrated that, even though he was blind, he could hear the grasshopper at Caine's feet when Caine could not. This lesson and countless others resulted in many wise statements which most people consolidate into, "You have much to learn, grasshopper."

North Dakota State University Agriculture Extension Service, Grasshopper Biology and Management, February 1997
Argonne National Laboratory, Newton Ask a Scientist, Grasshoppers and Locusts, 1975
Golden Harvest Organics, Grasshoppers, 1996
North Carolina State Agricultural Extension Service, Grasshoppers
University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, eastern lubber grasshopper
National Geographic News, Plagues Triggered by Serotonin? and Locust Swarms Switched on by Brain Chemical, January 29, 2009
John W. Kimball's Biology Pages, Tracheal Breathing
Bible Gateway, Exodus 10, New International Version
Shamanism, Grasshopper, Locust Power Animal, Symbol of Leaping Forward
Kung Fu Guide, Frequently Asked Questions

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating post! You always pull together such a great variety of information from many sources. But...they're still ugly.


If you're a spammer, there's no point posting a comment. It will automatically get filtered out or deleted. Comments from real people, however, are always very welcome!