Grasshoppers: Their Feast Is Just Beginning
Audio and Introduction By Les Harrison
The winter of 2017/18 was the one for which most people had for many years been wishing. The refrain “I want a cold winter to kill all the bugs,” has been a frequently express preference.
With the exception of February which was warm like many late winter months in recent memory, the winter was cold by recent standards. Even the second month of 2018 served as a lure to coax some of the unsuspecting insect out only to be frozen by March’s low temperatures.
Still it was nowhere near cold enough to deplete north Florida’s insect population which is currently reactivating. Unfortunately grasshoppers are emerging with all the others and have an appetite for foliage in huge quantities.
This ancient pestilence has been written about since the dawn of recorded history. Rameses II, well-known Pharaoh of Egypt’s 19th dynasty, had problems with this insect genus.
This Pharaoh had an impressive army which had humiliated the Hittites and the Amorites. He also had a generous supply of chariots, the high-tech weapon of the Bronze Age.
This armory proved no value against the locust or, as they are commonly known today, grasshoppers. Individually, there is little threat from a grasshopper, but if one brings a million ravenous family members there will be devastation.
From a biological perspective locusts are the swarming phase of certain species of short-horned grasshoppers in the family Acrididae, such as the American bird grasshopper, a southeastern native. It is worth noting there are flightless grasshoppers in the panhandle which never achieve the infamous status of being a locust.
Grasshoppers are among the most abundant herbivores in the local grassland ecosystems. On the bright side, they are an important source of food for wildlife, especially for birds.
In total there are about 70 difference species of grasshoppers in Florida, most of which frequent the region. Some species, however, are quite rare, endangered, or are unique to Florida.
Grasshopper species tend to have similar life histories. Eggs are deposited in soil clumped together in pods. Typically there are five or six nymph stages between the egg and adult stages.
Normally there is only one complete life cycle per year, but several species can have more than one generation. This high reproduction rate is a hallmark of locust or the flying grasshoppers.
The females and males look alike, but they can be distinguished by looking at the end of their abdomens. The male has a distinct boat-shaped tip to their backside.
The female grasshopper has two serrated valves which can be either apart or kept together. These valves are used for digging the hole in which an egg pod is deposited.
Large grasshoppers are most likely to be noticed in mid to late summer and to earn their status as pest at that time. In reality, they are present during the entire warm season, with their growth and increasing size elevating their profile as the season progresses.
Like with many insects, feeding habits can vary greatly among the species of grasshopper. Some will feed only on grasses, some only on broadleaf plants, while others feed on a wide selection of plants.
Many species will consume dried plant material as well as green vegetation, and even exhibit cannibalism when the situation dictates. Typically grasshoppers will move on when plants are depleted and stripped bare.
At that point they relocate to the next meal site. To support the swarm this can be into nearby crops in cultivated fields and pastures, or to a residential landscapes with tasty shrubbery.
While they are cute little cartoon like creatures now, they will be as big as cats and eating like market hogs in August. It is time to protect valued vegetation.
To learn more about grasshoppers in north Florida, contact the local UF/IFAS County Extension Office. Click here for contact information.