Insect Insight: Eastern Lubber Grasshopper

Well, it’s officially summer in Houston and we are literally buzzing with insect activity. Some species are off to a slow start due to the harsh winter, but they are sure to catch up soon. I love the summer! I can definitely tolerate it being hotter than all get out,  a lot better than the cold and I love to see the outdoors come to life. Millions of little creatures scurrying here and there doing their jobs to keep our environment working the way it should. How can you not appreciate that?

One insect you may be lucky enough to run into is the Eastern Lubber Grasshopper. Although I’m not terribly clear on the role these funny little guys play, it may just be to entertain people like me! These grasshoppers are commonly referred to as the clowns of the insect world. They are large, colorful, extremely clumsy, and just plain funny to look at!

Lubber grasshopper
Creative Commons License photo credit: JoelDeluxe

There are several species of Lubber grasshoppers. Most of them are found in South America, but luckily we have a few species here in North America. They are among the largest grasshoppers found in the United States. The term “lubber” refers to stout and clumsy individuals. You may have heard the term landlubber before, which means a clumsy or inexperienced sailor. This name fits them quite well. Most lubber grasshoppers are horrible jumpers, cannot fly, and are pretty slow at walking. You would think that this would put them at a disadvantage, but they have enough chemical and physical defenses to put off a large majority of predators that would threaten them!

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Clowns! Eastern Lubbers
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

The Easter Lubber or Romalea guttatta is probably the most well known grasshopper in the Southeastern United States and is definitely the largest! They can be called the clowns of the insect world due to their coloration. They usually have a combination of yellow, red and black and their colors can vary. They have these colors for a reason. They are known as aposematic or warning colors. This coloration can also be seen on animals such as coral snakes, poison dart frogs, bees, wasps, ladybugs, monarch butterflies, etc. This is a way of warning predators to stay away, or get more than they bargained for. This can mean poison, venom, a bad taste or other unpleasant consequences.

The bodies of Eastern Lubbers do contain toxic chemicals that have been known to cause death in certain bird species and cause small mammals like opossums to wretch violently and feel sick for quite some time after. Of course there are some animals that are tolerant of their poison.

If their coloration does not work, they have an arsenal of other defenses. They will lift their wings, displaying their bright red color. This is often followed by a loud hissing noise as they force a bubbly frothy liquid from their spiracles (breathing holes). This substance contains some semi-toxic chemicals which are irritants. They can also regurgitate plant material that has been recently eaten and digested. This liquid is brown in color and also contains some semi-toxic compounds from the insect’s crop. It is often referred to as tobacco spit and many grasshoppers are able to do this. Wow, if  an insect was doing all that to me, I would probably freak out! I have been working with Eastern Lubbers for years and have never ever seen such a thing. They must not find me very threatening!

Juvenile Eastern Lubber
Creative Commons License photo credit: vladeb a nymph

If you’re wondering where to find these beauties, well, your guess is as good as mine! They prefer moist, densely wooded areas, but as they mature, they will disperse and can be found in almost any suitable habitat. I have collected them several times out at Bear Creek Park. Sometimes they will disperse into gardens and become a bit of a pest. They will eat a wide variety of wild plants but are fond of amaryllis and related plants in gardens.  However, despite their size, they have a very small appetite, so the numbers would have to be great to cause a problem.

The nymphs tend to be gregarious and they look quite different from the adults so they can often be mistaken for a different species all together. They are all black with a narrow yellow, red, or orange stripe running from their head to their abdomen. If you happen to run into these grasshoppers, take some time to observe them. We are so lucky to have such an amazing insect native to our little part of the world.

In the mean time you can stop by our Entomology Hall to see them on display. I’m fortunate enough to be fully stocked up with plenty of adults and nymphs to last me through the summer! Until next time, happy grasshopper watching!

News from the Butterfly Center: Vinegaroon gives birth to…grasshoppers??

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1 Momma
Vinegaroon with her eggs

We were delighted a couple of weeks ago to find that our new female vinegaroon had produced an egg sac which she was carrying under her abdomen. This was a first for the butterfly center as we have never successfully bred these arachnids.

I wanted to be prepared when the time came for her babies to hatch so I read up on my copy of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting Baby Vinegaroons.”

I’ve been growing very anxious waiting for something to happen, and today, I was totally taken by surprise! As I was cleaning up the insect zoo, I happened to glance over at the vinegaroon display and notice a very small, black, um, thing.

As I got closer, I realized that it was a brand new baby lubber grasshopper! How odd, I definitely was not expecting that. Having one species give birth to another is certainly an unprecedented event and I expect it will be published in some scientific journal.  

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
Look how tinyand adorable!

But seriously, imagine my surprise! Unfortunately, the vinegaroon’s egg sac was not viable and therefore, she ate it early this week. Her only comment was “thank god, I was starving!”

The baby lubbers were really a pick-me-up, although they showed up in a crazy place. This seems to be a trend; a female lubber will lay eggs somewhere unbeknownst to me, and they’ll pop up somewhere really weird, usually sharing space with a carnivore.

In this case, the eggs must have been laid in the potted plant decorating the vinegaroon’s display case. Luckily, these guys are tiny and go relatively unnnoticed by the resident.  

Lubber grasshoppers are the largest Orthopterans native to the United States and can be found all over the southeastern part of the country. There are several different species; these are Eastern Lubber Grasshoppers. As adults, they display bright red and yellow coloration, warning any would-be predators that they taste really yucky!

This type of coloration is known as aposematic. The name “lubber” comes from the fact that they are totally clumsy and are really not very good at moving around quickly. It’s a good thing, becuase they’re poisonous! Still, they’re always a welcome surprise around here and they are just so so cute. Welcome to the world little grasshoppers!

As far as our poor vinegaroon, well, she may not have been meant to be a mom, but don’t fret, dear public, Laurie and I are already raising 3 babies we found in Arizona last year. Check them out:

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
Awwwwwww!