By Les Harrison
Wakulla County Extension Director
It looks like 2017 will be one for the record books, at least in Wakulla County. A winter with relatively warm temperatures, albeit a late March frost, and many plants blooming quite early has made for an interesting start to the growing year.
Insects and bugs of all stripes have come out early, too. Unfortunately grasshoppers are also emerging now and ready to eat foliage in huge quantities.
This ancient plague has been written about since the dawn of recorded history. Rameses II, famed Pharaoh of Egypt’s 19th dynasty, had problems with this trifling insect.
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 family members there is 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 Wakulla County native. It is worth noting there are flightless grasshoppers in Wakulla County 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 Wakulla County. 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 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.
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, their growth and increasing size raise 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 variety 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.
For the home gardener or landscape manager, the grasshoppers will keep them hopping to control this eating machine.
To learn more about grasshoppers in Wakulla County contact the UF/IFAS Wakulla County Extension Office at 850-926-3931 or https://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/wakullaco/.