Grasshoppers and kin, the acoustic insects

The orthopterans – mainly grasshoppers, katydids, and crickets – are familiar and appealing insects, easily heard, if not seen, and sometimes colorful. They are active year-round and often prominent. Bird grasshoppers can be seen flying in deciduous woods and thickets on sunny late winter afternoons. By early April the buzzing flight, or crepitation, of small grasshoppers was audible in yards. On warm evenings in spring there is a loud, monotonous buzzing, undoubtedly from orthopterans. I first hear the familiar katydids of summer in late June, continuing towards first frost, long after the cicadas. Next crickets stand out. Compare how loud nights are in summer and fall to how silent they are, animal-wise, from late fall through spring, though a few crickets call on warm nights even then. There are also tree crickets and bizarre, fossorial mole crickets. There could be silent, sometimes non-native camel crickets indoors. 178 butterflies have been recorded in NC, versus 259 orthopterans (and almost 500 birds), and butterflies are probably the better surveyed group. Gardeners could invite orthopterans into wild or nocturnal gardens.

The Orthoptera (combining “straight” and “wing”) is one of the more ancient insect orders, with similarities to dragonflies. At one time it also included cockroaches, mantises, and walkingsticks. Orthoptera is divided into two suborders, grasshoppers (sometimes termed short-horned, many in the Acrididae family) versus katydids (or long-horned grasshoppers) and crickets, Caelifera and Ensifera respectively. Some short-horned grasshoppers are called locusts, from locus ustus, Latin for “burnt place,” describing the land picked clean by grasshoppers. Apparently cicadas have been called locusts since the late 1600’s, but cicadas are sucking insects in the order Homoptera, with tiny, colorful leafhoppers, treehoppers, and aphids. There are also leguminacious locust trees.

Orthopteran wings are pleated, folding like hand fans. Not all adult orthopterans have wings, but in general they have toughened forewings, or tegmina, protecting hindwings. Their calls are made by stridulation, rubbing their wings and/or legs, a very different method than that used by cicadas. Male orthopterans generally make calling songs and in some cases the females briefly reply. There can also be courtship songs, fight songs, and protest songs. Some orthopterans produce sounds by wing snapping in flight, crepitation, or by drumming their hind legs against the substrate they rest on. Females have ovipositors, often prominent and sometimes brightly colored in katydids and crickets, which they use to hid their eggs underground or in plant tissue; most grasshopper species lay their eggmasses in the soil. Orthopterans grow through simple metamorphosis, the nymphs resembling adults, just wingless and having possibly cute proportions. Hoppers’ big eyes and deliberate movements might also be appealing.

There is growing talk of dietary changes being necessary for sustainability, and orthopterans have long been on the menu. They have relatively soft exoskeletons and look meaty, with 50-75% crude protein in grasshoppers and katydids, though I wonder how arthropods could be killed humanely. I ate a tasty assortment of salted insects, including orthopterans, I received one Christmas.

This is an excerpt from my article in the May – June issue of Triangle Gardener magazine, available in print at local libraries, stores, and gardens and posted online at

Some guides and sources:

The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders. Milne, Lorus and Margery, 1992.

Field Guide to Grasshoppers, Katydids, and Crickets of the United States. Capinera, John L, Scott, Ralph D, and Walker, Thomas J, 2004.

How to Know the Grasshoppers, Cockroaches and Their Allies. Helfer, Jacques R, 1953. – Orthoptera of North Carolina – The North Carolina Biodiversity Project [Orthoptera of NC is a subsidiary of this project] – Singing Insects of North America [covers crickets, katydids, and cicadas; created by the Orthopterists’ Society]

Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier. Jeffrey A Lockwood, 2005 [a blog in Chatham County with some orthopteran photos] [another Triangle blog with some photos]

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