This article was written by Emily Bowers, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Naturalist at North Mississippi Regional Park
As fall approaches the natural world begins to feel as though it’s winding down. Many visiting birds have left, plant life is subsiding as sunlight lessens, and with cooler temperatures most insect activity doesn’t appear so prominent. However, this month it seems you can’t walk along a grassy trail without seeing the near constant springing movement of grasshoppers at your feet. Fall is certainly the season for seeing grasshoppers, though they aren’t the only little leapers around.
Modern-day grasshoppers are descended from primitive ancestors that first appeared more than 300 million years ago, before dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Grasshoppers are classified within the order of Orthoptera, meaning straight wing, consisting of insects with hind legs that are developed for jumping. The order is further divided into two suborders with grasshoppers and locusts in one group and crickets and katydids in the other. Most of these insects have a cylindrical body and fan-shaped back wings that are protected by tough front wings.
The defining characteristic of this insect group are very large back legs. On average, grasshoppers are able to leap 20 times the length of their body or about 1 meter. If a human could do that we would be able to go 120 feet in one jump! The extreme jumping capability of grasshoppers, crickets and other members of this group is because their hind legs function as catapults that launch them forward. When preparing to jump, the large leg muscles slowly contract, bringing their body down and back. The leg bends at the knee, which contains a mechanism that acts like a spring, storing potential energy. Once ready to jump, the leg muscles are relaxed, allowing the spring to release flinging the insect through the air.
Another important feature of these insects is powerful mouthparts, adapted for chewing. Crickets and grasshoppers both prefer grassland habitats such as fields, meadows and prairies. While grasshoppers are herbivores that only feed on plants, crickets are scavenging omnivores that eat plants as well as smaller insects and larvae. Often considered pests by farmers, grasshoppers and locusts can cause serious economic damage due to their feeding habits. In fact, swarms of grasshoppers infested Minnesota in 1873 and continued their devouring each summer until 1877 with little or no reprieve. Alternatively, crickets do not create this type of devastation and are considered signs of good luck.
Many of the species in this order are able to make sounds, such as the familiar cricket chirping. This ability to ‘sing’ by rubbing one part of the body against another is known as stridulation. The parts rubbed together are called the file, which has little ridges, and the scraper. So the effect is similar to running a comb along a rigid edge. Crickets achieve this by rubbing their forewings together and grasshoppers rub their hind leg against the forewing. The pitch of sound can be varied by changing the speed at which they move the scraper. Some sounds are intended to attract mates, while others are designed to warn away other males.
These insects typically have a three-stage life cycle consisting of egg, nymph and adult. During this simple metamorphosis into adulthood the nymph stages are smaller versions of adults, minus wings and reproductive organs. Minnesota species only live about six months, existing as a single generation each year. Hatching late in the spring from eggs laid down in the soil, many don’t reach their full size until late summer or early fall. That is why grasshoppers and crickets appear so prevalent in September, because they are physically at their largest and busy looking for mates. Long, warm autumns, followed by warm, dry springs contribute to building populations by providing a longer egg laying season and then favorable hatching conditions.
Walk in search of grasshoppers and crickets this month to see how many of these short lived, long jumpers you can find or even catch. Here are a few tips to tell the difference between grasshoppers and crickets. Size–adult grasshoppers are larger than adult crickets. Antennae–crickets have very long antennae and grasshoppers’ are short. Grasshoppers are active during the day and crickets tend to be most active starting when the sun goes down.
Drop in “discovery” in your community continues into the fall! Naturalists will ’round up’ fun, interesting and inspiring nature activities for you safely at a neighborhood park! Join us for no-touch or easily sanitizable nature exploring – check out the full schedule on Facebook to see when we’ll be at a park near you. No need to register, just stop by for free family fun!
Get outside and into Nearby Nature, with self-directed, nature-based activities designed to enhance the experience of park goers of all ages while exploring parks. All Nearby Nature activities are free and no registration is necessary. Get activity locations each week at the Minneapolis Parks Neighborhood Naturalist page on Facebook. Share experiences and photos through the hashtag #NearbyNatureMpls or send feedback to email@example.com. Visit the Kroening Interpretive Center Facebook page for more fun ways to connect with nature in our community.
Sign up for kit-based virtual workshops, such as building your own birdfeeder from home! Connect with a naturalist and other young nature lovers as you create together virtually. Visit minneapolisparks.org/register to find programs this fall.
Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board program buildings remain closed to the public until further notice due to COVID-19. The MPRB’s priority is the health and safety of our park visitors and our employees. Visit minneapolisparks.org/coronavirus or sign up to receive email updates at minneapolisparks.org/subscribe by selecting “COVID-19” in the “News Updates” section.
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