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!

A Tale of Two Beetles

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1 Taxicab Beetles

During my time here at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, I’ve bred and raised several different types of insects, walking sticks, katydids, grasshoppers, mantids, and even some spiders. These insects are relatively easy to breed and have a quick lifespan. I’ve always wanted to delve into the world of breeding beetles, but for some reason, I’ve been hesitant to take on such a task. Maybe because of the commitment; some species of beetles can take years to reach adulthood!

Well, I’ve taken the dive! On Tuesday, September 7, I received a shipment from a wonderful colleague of mine at the Sophia Sachs Butterfly House in St. Louis, Mark Deering. Mark has been raising beetles for years and seemed like the perfect mentor for me. He sent me two small colonies of beetles, one of Eudicella euthalia and one of Pachnoda marginata. These are two types of flower beetles from Africa. Flower beetles are a group of scarab beetles that visit flowers to collect pollen and nectar. Among the 4000 species of flower beetles are some of the most beautiful beetles in the world! Luckily, these two species are excellent for beginners, taking only 7-10 months to complete their life-cycle.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1 A newly emerged
female Eudicella.

The genus Eudicella is comprised of more than 20 species of brightly colored beetles. These beetles are only found in tropical Africa. They are often referred to as “buffalo beetles” due to the “y” shaped horn found on the male’s head. The females’ head is shaped sort of like a shovel and used to dig into the substrate and lay her eggs. Beetles in the genus Pachnoda are also indigenous to Africa, and members of their 108 species groups can be found all over the continent. Pachnoda marginata is the most commonly bred species. They are also known as sun beetles or taxicab beetles because of their unique color pattern. The male lacks any sort of distinguishing characteristic such as a horn, so I really can’t tell male and female apart!

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1 A grub

Setting these beetles up for rearing was pretty easy and now all I need to do is wait. The larvae of both species thrive in a substrate made from hardwood mulch and humus or decomposed organic material. They will feed on this mixture for several months until the time comes for them to change. If you didn’t know, beetles have complete metamorphosis just like butterflies. The larvae of scarab beetles are commonly called grubs and are fat, white, and shaped like a “c”. Most of you are probably familiar with grubs since they are often found in your lawn or garden. Once the grubs are ready to pupate, they will construct a cell from compacted dirt and saliva. This cell acts as a cocoon inside which the grub turns into a pupa.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1 A cocoon

A few months later the adult beetle emerges. It really is an amazing transformation and even as an entomologist, it’s hard for me to wrap my brain around that! Being able to rear these beetles here is a great advantage for us. Sometimes exotic beetles are hard to come by or they don’t make the long trip from our only supplier in Malaysia. I’m so excited to have these beautiful beetles here for display and education! Be sure to stop by the Entomology Hall here at the Cockrell Butterfly Center to see these and other spectacular beetles on display! Happy Bug Watching!

Photo From You: Insect Identification

 A Mole Cricket
photo provided by Rachel Drew

Hello again, dear readers and bug lovers! I was very pleased to discover this week that we recieved a photo all the way from Virginia Beach, Virginia. This one can be a real head-scratcher for those of you who have never seen one before, which is probably most of you!

I first happened upon this insect in college while collecting insects in a huge parking lot at night. I saw some sort of large insect jumping and flying for several feet at a time. When I finally caught up to it, I was honestly taken aback by what I saw. It was a mole cricket; an insect that spends nearly its entire life underground, only coming to the surface to forage at night. So, Rachel Drew from Virginia Beach – that is what you found on your livingroom floor! Now, let me tell you a little bit about these odd – looking creatures.

Mole crickets make up the family of orthopterans (grasshoppers, katydids, and crickets) called Gryllotalpidae. These crickets are made for digging, and if you look at them closely, their head, thorax, and front legs really do make them look just like a mole! The rest of their body looks more like a normal cricket. Their front legs are equipped with little claws which help them dig and construct their tunnels. These claws are called dactyls and their number and arrangement help scientists differentiate between certain species.

Most species have well developed wings which can carry them for about 5 miles during their mating season. They are also very good swimmers. Mole crickets are omnivores, and they will will feast on worms, insect larvae, and roots underground as well as grasses at the surface. I’m not sure which species is pictured here, but more than likely the Southern mole cricket or the tawny mole cricket. It looks as if it may be immature due to the lack of well developed wings. These two species are most common in the southern part of the country. Unfortunately, they are both introduced species and can be considered pests in some areas. These little guys are harmless, however, and for those who are lucky enough to spot one, a really great photo opportunity!

Well, thank you so much for sending in the great photo Rachel, and for reading about us in Virginia! This insect will always hold a special place in my heart as one of the weirdest looking things I’ve seen! As always, Happy bug watching!

Want to learn more about insects? Keep reading.
Check out an insect that spends the summer singing.
Costa Rica: bug geek paradise.
Mantis maaaaadness!

Photo from US: Insect Identification

cicada

Yes! This week, the title “Insect Identification” is really an accurate title. One of our own, Chris Flis, took this awesome photo out at the HMNS paleological dig site in Seymour, Texas, where our team is working hard to uncover new bones and fossils. This is our first insect submittal and I’m very excited because this is one incredible insect.
This is an insect that you rarely see, but find traces of them everywhere. During the warm months of the year, people all over the country come accross peculiar shells which look like bugs, but appear to be empty. As a kid, I would find these all over my grandparents heavily wooded backyard and I loved to scare my brother and sister with them. I would call them, along with about 99.9% of the population, locust shells. It was not until I studied insects in college that I discovered that locusts are a kind of grasshopper, and these shells I was seeing everywhere belonged to a bizarre little bug called a cicada. In this photograph, you can see the actual adult cicada clinging to its old shell, or exoskeleton. It is probably waiting for it’s new skin to completely harden so it can roam the forest in search of a mate.

Cicadas are insects belonging to the order Homoptera, an order containing mostly plant pests such as aphids, scale insects, mealybugs, and whiteflies. Cicadas themselves do very little damage to plants and are not considered pests. They have simple or gradual metamorphosis, meaning they have only three different life stages: egg, nymph, adult. The nymphs spend their time underground sucking fluids from roots of trees. When it is time for them to become an adult, they tunnel their way out of the earth, attach themselves to the bark or branch of a tree, and molt for the final time. The adult that emerges looks almost identical to the nymph, only larger with big beautiful wings. This always happens at night, so we don’t see the adult, just the skin they leave behind which is perfectly preserved and very crunchy. The adult males are capable of producing sound from their abdomen which they use to track down a mate. Cicadas are active during the daytime, so that VERY loud hissing sound you hear during the hottest hours of the day are lonely male cicadas. At night, we are serenaded by nocturnal crickets, katydids, and of course, frogs. There are around 3000 species of cicada, each producing a unique sound. You can click here to listen to some different cicada songs as well as some katydids and crickets. Most cicadas have a pretty long lifespan, remaining underground as a nymph anywhere from one to three years. These are known as annual cicadas and can be seen every year. This one in Chris’s picture is an annual cicada.

Now why do I say these are such incredible insects? You may have heard of a periodical cicada. These cicadas belong to the genus Magicicada which contains only seven species. There are two types of periodical cicadas; 13 year and 17 year cicadas. This means that these guys spend either 13 or 17 years as a nymph, underground sucking on roots, which is incredible. Not only do they live for an unbelieveble amount of time, their emergences are synchronized, creating one of natures greatest phenomenons. When an emergence takes place, millions of cicadas come out of the ground for several weeks providing food for hundreds of species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and other arthropods. These animals feast on cicadas until their bellies are about to pop, but they don’t even put a dent in the cicada population. So many of them die that the forest floor is covered by several inches of decomposing cicada bodies, giving the trees a tremendous dose of fertilizer that can only come from such an incredible event. This spectacle of nature can be seen in my favorite program ever, the Planet Earth series (the Seasonal Forests episode). These periodical cicadas look much different from the usual annual cicadas. They have a black body, red eyes, and orange veins in their wings. This website has a lot of great information about periodical cicadas, including an emergence chart which shows when certain broods will emerge next.

Thanks so much for sending in this picture Chris, it spurred such an interesting topic. I hope I’ve cleared up ya’lls misconceptions about cicadas and I hope you find them as amazing as I do.

Adult Cicada

Creative Commons License photo credit: trekkyandy
A Periodical Cicada