SEPTEMBER
1999

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

9-09-99

Here a Hopper, There a Hopper

Fall is hopper season. At least, that is the way it seems in most years. Grasshoppers mature and reach full size late in the summer and early fall. While these insects are around most of the summer, they are most noticeable in the fall.

Grasshoppers make their presence known in at least three ways. First, their populations can be quite high, so they are hard to miss through sheer numbers. Many species sing to attract mates, but the singing also attracts human attention. And finally, grasshoppers are plant feeders, so they sometimes damage our plants.

It's the damage that grasshoppers do that really gets the attention of humans. The most harmful belong to a group known as spur-throated grasshoppers. The name comes from a spur-like structure that extends from the throat toward the front legs.

The spur-throated grasshoppers are some of the most damaging of all the hoppers. Included are the migratory species known as the Rocky Mountain locusts. In this country, we also refer to cicadas as locusts, but technically the term is used worldwide for species of grasshoppers.

Rocky Mountain locusts are known for large swarms that include millions and millions of individuals. These swarms take wing and form clouds that literally black out the sun. In the late 1870s, great swarms of these migratory grasshoppers appeared in the plains and destroyed all the vegetation when they stopped.

While the large swarms of the 1870s have not recurred in the United States, grasshoppers still cause damage. Grasshopper damage is especially bad during dry years. The lack of soil moisture means that diseases of the eggs and newly hatched hoppers are reduced. This allows the populations to reach high numbers during droughts.

Some of the most damaging to our crops belong to the Melanoplus genera. These include the differential grasshopper, which is a large, yellow species. These grasshoppers are common in the plains states and, as most farm boys know, make good catfish bait!

Two other damaging species are the two-striped grasshopper and the red-legged grasshopper. Both names are descriptive of how the insects look. All of these grasshoppers are common in wheat and oat fields, and many are killed going through combines during harvest. This probably seems to be poetic justice to many farmers who have seen crops damaged severely by hoppers.

Because of their numbers and damage, grasshopper tales rank right up there with fish stories in folk legend. Most of the stories originated in the drought years of the 1930s. Common are the tales where farmers would leave a pitchfork stuck in the ground overnight in the wheat stubble field only to find the handle reduced to a stub the next morning by hungry hoppers. 

Many straw hats hung on fence posts over the noon hour have been reported chewed to bits by the time the owner returned. But even taller tales abound. Horses were reported to have walked away from the hitching post because grasshoppers would eat through the tie rope. Even worse, the hoppers would chew through the harness, while it was still on the horse—or chew holes in clothing hung on the line to dry.

It's hard to separate fact from fiction when it comes to grasshopper tales. 

But almost anything could be true when it comes to nature's chewing machines!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox