I haven’t seen very many grasshoppers, this year. But people have been asking me about them recently. Evidently, they’ve been observing them for several weeks. And they’re seeing a lot of them, lately.
With the exception of the planet’s Polar Regions, grasshoppers are found literally everywhere in the world. They’re Orthopterans (straight-winged); members of an insect order that also includes crickets, katydids, and other similar insects, and is one of the largest and most important groups of plant-feeding insects on Earth.
In 2018, researchers from Texas A&M University and Museo de La Plata, in Argentina, analyzed the DNA of 142 species captured in 22 countries and discovered that grasshoppers originated in South America, not Africa, as widely believed, some 60-million years ago. Over time, they migrated, most-likely by flight, and diversified. Today there are more than 6,800 known species.
The life cycle of a grasshopper is comprised of three stages; egg, nymph (larva), and adult. There’s no pupal stage. This is known as ‘incomplete metamorphosis.’
Grasshopper eggs hatch in early summer. The newly-hatched nymphs change observably throughout their summer-long period of development, growing in size to more-closely resemble the adults they’re becoming, with each successive molt (shedding of their hard exoskeletons).
In late summer and early fall, as adults, grasshoppers enter the reproductive phase of their lives. Adult males use sound to attract females for mating. They rub their legs or wings together to produce a whirring or chirping sound, a process called stridulation.
Are They a Concern?
Long acknowledged as being capable of causing overwhelming damage and bringing about tremendous crop-losses, devastation by grasshoppers has been well documented, even in the Old Testament. Consider the locusts that plagued Egypt in Exodus 10.
But grasshoppers don’t represent a serious problem in our area; especially for gardens. Grasshoppers feed primarily on forage crops, which makes them more of a potential agricultural pest than a risk to home gardeners (although they’re not considered much of a threat to agriculture here, either).
As field crops are harvested, grasshoppers will move to yards and gardens, in search of other food sources. And they’re voracious feeders, eating 16-times their body weight, daily. It’s rare that it happens here, but grasshoppers do, occasionally, damage garden vegetables and even destroy unprotected gardens. They may even become a threat to small trees and shrubs.
If nothing else, they can certainly become a nuisance in and around the yard. They’re difficult to control. And they can be extremely annoying when they turn up in large numbers.
A Threat in the West
Grasshoppers are very much a danger to gardens and field crops in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states where, in arid regions, single ranches can sprawl over thousands of acres of private and public rangeland. According to a 2012 University of Wyoming study, a typical infestation can remove 20% of forage from the range. If left unaddressed, agricultural damage from grasshoppers can become so severe that it drives up crop and beef prices.
In 2021, grasshoppers ravaged through western range and cropland, causing serious damage in cereal and legume crops. Officials with the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and local Cooperative Extension offices counted grasshoppers above economic threshold levels in areas across 34.8 million acres of land, including large stretches of Montana and Oregon, as well as parts of Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, and Arizona and, to a lesser degree, Utah, California, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska. In order to lessen the economic damage, the U.S. Department of Agriculture turned to aerial spraying of pesticide in low-concentrations, to kill grasshopper nymphs before they developed into adults.
During my years at Extension, I hesitated to recommend the use of chemical pesticides, except as a last resort, because of the many birds (hawks, turkeys, partridge, crows, just to name a few) and small animals (e.g. skunks, kit foxes, coyotes, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, snakes, toads) that often eat large numbers of insects. Then there’s the fact that many insects, including grasshoppers, are migratory, so a quick kill is often little more than a temporary fix, anyway.
Attracting predators to your yard, I think, is a better alternative. By creating a habitat that provides food and refuge for predators, you’ll be able to control the problem while viewing and enjoying native birds and wildlife with friends and family, in the comfort of your backyard.
In the case of grasshoppers, keeping a few ducks, geese, or turkeys around can keep populations in check. These birds can, and will, eat a lot of grasshoppers.
During the Great Depression, farmers in the Midwest released turkeys into their fields in an effort to control grasshopper infestations. The success that they experienced was two-fold. The farmers were able to save their threatened field crops. And the turkeys thrived, as well. The abundant grasshoppers provided the birds with a nutritious, high protein diet. And little or no supplemental feeding was required.
Grasshoppers are able to leap distances 20-times the length of their bodies. If I could do that, I’d be able to catapult myself roughly 120 feet (36.576 meters), without a running start, in a single bound.
Photo at top: Migratory Grasshopper. Photo Credit: University of Michigan.