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Grasshoppers and Locusts
Nature Bulletin No. 573-A   September 20, 1975
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

GRASSHOPPERS AND LOCUSTS
A grasshopper, to many people living east of the Great Plains, is merely a happy-go-lucky harmless clown of the insect world. That myth probably stems from Aesop's fable about the improvident grasshopper and the industrious ants or from Walt Disney's movie, based upon it, with the grasshopper's rollicking theme song: "Oh, the world owes me a living. "

Actually, grasshoppers have always been among the most destructive of insects. The Book of Exodus relates that, in Egypt, a vast swarm covered the face of the earth "and there remained not any green thing. " From the earliest Assyrian, Egyptian and Chinese chronicles we know that terrible famines resulted from plagues of locusts that repeatedly devastated parts of Africa and Asia.

In 1797, grasshoppers ruined crops in New England; in 1818 they destroyed them in the Red River Valley of Minnesota; in 1848 the Mormon settlers in Utah were saved from starvation by flocks of gulls that consumed hordes of grasshoppers devouring their crops. This was a wingless species misnamed the Mormon cricket.

The most spectacular outbreaks in this country occurred during the 1870's when tremendous swarms of locusts -- the Rocky Mountain, grasshopper -- migrated into the Great Plains states and southward to Texas. They left the prairies utterly barren, with only holes in the ground where wheat or range grasses had been. Trees were stripped of all leaves and young bark. Horse cars in Omaha, and Union Pacific railroad trains, were stopped. One swarm, about 100 miles wide and 300 miles long, was so high and dense that it obscured the sun and darkened the land.

There are two principal groups of grasshoppers. The long-horned group, with slender antennae as long as or longer than their bodies, includes the katydids, the cone-headed grasshoppers that also sing at night, the meadow grasshoppers that sing in daytime, and the shield- bearing grasshoppers on which the wings are absent or so short that they cannot fly. The latter include the only serious pest in this group, the Mormon "cricket".

The short-horned group, with stout antennae much shorter than their bodies, are all destructive. The non-migratory species mostly live and die in the fields where they were hatched, but there is a huge number of migrating kinds. Some of them, when conditions are favorable, multiply enormously and migrate in immense swarms that devastate the lands they visit. It is they that, since Biblical times, have been named locusts. Of 142 species found in our western states, 17 are most abundant and 90 percent of the damage is done by five of them.

Atypical grasshopper has long powerful hind legs for catapulting it into the air, and two pairs of wings that fold back over its body. The front wings are straight and leathery; the rear pair are broad and membranous. It has chewing mouthparts and five eyes: two large compound ones, and three tiny simple eyes -- one in the middle of its forehead -- for close vision. The ears of a short-horned grasshopper are on its abdomen, just behind the long legs, long-horned species have them on the front legs.

As a rule, only the males "sing" or make sounds. Most short-horned kinds rasp their hind legs against the front wings, but some make a clattering noise by vibrating their wings. Long-horned grasshoppers rub their front wings together.

As boys, we believed that a grasshopper chewed tobacco and that this "spit" -- really a digestive juice -- would cure warts. For boils, our grandmothers applied poultices made of grasshoppers' hind legs and this old remedy, believe it or not, has been proven valuable.


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