An early memory of my outdoor exploration was catching grasshoppers in my grandmother’s backyard. She’d given up gardening at that point in her life, but she was happy that I removed an animal that had been a competitor when she raised her own vegetables and cattle. She grew up on a farm that barely survived the dust bowl days, so it was no wonder she cheered me on as I became a skilled and stealthy grasshopper hunter. Usually I found differential grasshoppers, the yellowish-green kind that defensively spit “tobacco juice” when I grabbed them. I would put them in jars for a while and then let them go. Once, I pulled one apart to see what was inside and immediately felt guilty for killing it, but I’ll never forget discovering hundreds of tiny insect eggs inside that grasshopper’s abdomen.
As an adult, I returned to the high plains of my childhood to lead tours as a U.S. National Park Service guide. Reliving some of my early fascination with grasshoppers, I casually caught a large, slow hopper along the prairie trail as I talked about the wildflowers with my tour group. Suddenly, a sharp pain pierced my fingertip, and I opened my palm to see the hopper’s jaws firmly locked onto my skin, dangling for a moment. I tried to downplay my shock and embarrassment as blood droplets rose to the surface and trickled down my fingertip. I quickly pulled out my first aid kit and put on a bandage. Never had I been injured when I caught grasshoppers as a kid.
That said, I’d never caught a horse lubber (pictured above), either. The pain didn’t prevent me from admiring its bright colors, horsey head, and small, saddle-like wings. I probably looked at this breed with a little more respect, realizing there’s always more to a creature than what meets the eye. Horse lubbers are beautiful, big-legged animals that trot-hop closer to the ground than their aerialist relatives. The lubber is also larger than other grasshoppers, crickets or katydids, all members of the Orthoptera family of more than 12,000 species.
Locusts are a small subgroup of grasshoppers that behave differently when there’s a dense population. When locusts have plenty of space, they are solitary, like all other grasshoppers. But when resources are too crowded, a dozen or so species have the ability to become gregarious, organizing into swarms and migrating. Locusts take on more than a mob mentality to survive. They also physiologically transform themselves. Within a couple of generations they have changed colors, altered their fertility, and equipped their bodies with long, strong wings for flying.
It might be difficult to see the good in an overgrowth of an insect that has a reputation of devastating proportion, but try to understand grasshoppers from another perspective. At that same park where I learned to keep my hands off lubbers, a local group of people made a special foraging trip into the park. With empty milk jugs tied to their belts, they waded into the tall grasses and caught gallons of the fat, plump insects. I learned that they were celebrating a special occasion and planned to make a delicacy with grasshoppers as the main ingredient. They were grateful for the abundant protein source.
Like all parts of a natural system, grasshoppers play a role that stays in balance as long as the other parts of the system are in balance. Grasshoppers are food for birds, small mammals and lizards as well as many predatory insects, and they provide an important foundation for the entire food web, which includes humans. Grasshoppers graze on grasses and leafy plants, breaking down nutrients into fertilizer that builds soil for more plants to grow, doing so even more efficiently than sheep or cattle. There are studies that show grasshoppers prefer to eat certain invasive exotic plants as well, and can help keep them under control.
When trying to bring a system back into balance, it helps to approach the problem as the solution. Grasshoppers are eating all the crops? Maybe make the grasshoppers the crop. Spraying poisons on both the animals and plants they are consuming in order to control and create a new order might result in more problems in an endlessly out-of-balance system. Across the world and throughout time, humans have made the best of insect abundance by harvesting the readily available protein. Maybe my early childhood training in hopper hunting will help keep me alive someday.