By Mike Groenewold
Some years grasshoppers can be a formidable force on the Nebraska landscape; however, drought has impacted their habitat this season and their populations are at a tolerable level. Grasshoppers have always fascinated me and I enjoyed chasing them as a kid while roaming my grandparent’s farm, and they made great fish bait. My Granddad always warned me, “Don’t let those hoppers spit tobacco juice on you.” More curious than scared, I soon found out their brown “spit” was pretty smelly. I recently learned there spit is not toxic but is an effective defense mechanism that causes many predators to release a captured hopper.
Grasshoppers have a hard outer covering and vary in color to blend with surrounding terrain. Most start the season green and turn brown as summer wanes into fall. Grasshoppers are very vocal, producing courtship “song” by vibrating their wings and produce other acoustic cues to broadcast the location of food. They also have well developed ears enabling individuals to locate sounds from great distances, so populations can communicate for reproduction, development and survival.
Grasshoppers have voracious appetites and can have a significant impact on the landscape. Each species has a preferred plant diet. Of the 108 species of short-horned grasshoppers that are known to occur in Nebraska, for example, only a few species are known to cause significant damage to rangeland and crops. Several might even be considered beneficial as they consume weedy plants, some of which are toxic to livestock. Some feed exclusively on trees and shrubs while others feed primarily on forbs. Here is a brief breakdown of the five subfamilies of the Acrididae family and their feeding habits in Nebraska.
Hoppers in the Gomphocerinae sub-family feed entirely on grasses and sedges and are the species most likely to damage rangeland. Did you know that a population of 8-12 hoppers per square yard can consume as much forage as a cow?
Hoppers in the Oedipodinae sub-family are often called bandwings since they have colorful hind wings. They feed on grasses and forbs.
Hoppers in the Melanoplinae sub-family are the spur-throated grasshoppers, named for spur-like extensions found under the front of the thorax. Spur throats feed more on forbs than grasses, but some feed on shrubs and trees.
Large hoppers in the Cyrtacanthacridinae sub-family, often called bird grasshoppers, are represented in Nebraska by only three species, and feed on a variety of forbs, shrubs and trees.
Another large hopper three inches in length, often called lubbers, in the Romaleidae sub-family, is represented in Nebraska by a single species which prefers to feed on sunflowers and sagebrushes and is unlikely to damage rangeland.
One grasshopper, that once ravaged crops of early Nebraska settlers, apparently went extinct around 1900. The Rocky Mountain locust, Melanoplus spretus, once ranged the western United States and Canada in enormous swarms, but has since disappeared from the continent and is rare in collections. Entomologists believe plowing and irrigation by settlers significantly disrupted the insect’s life cycle enough to cause its decline.
Spraying to reduce populations may not be necessary this year since hoppers are struggling to survive on drought stressed plants. Grasshoppers could be back with a vengeance next year, but investigate your hopper population and feeding patterns to determine if a pesticide application is necessary. During summer months, many game and non-game bird species depend on the protein rich diet that grasshoppers and other insects provide.