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!

Ghosts in the Trees

Last night, I was reminded of how unusual some of the insects we raise here in the Cockrell Butterfly Center are to most people. I had set up a table in the grand hallway of the museum to promote our outreach program, cleverly titled “Bugs on Wheels.” As soon as I left the Butterfly Center’s doors, I had drawn a crowd that didn’t seem to subside for the entire evening!

I think what grabs most people’s attention are our exotic walking sticks, which we have been displaying for several years. As soon as people see our giant prickly stick, they commence with “what on earth is that?” type of comments, and I love to educate them!

Walking sticks belong to the insect order Phasmatodea or Phasmida. This name comes from the Latin word phasma, which means ghost. It refers to their amazing camouflage skills, which in the right setting, can make them vanish right before your eyes! These insects are all herbivorous and harmless, having no venom or large mandibles for biting. This makes them an easy target for insectivores! So they have come up with some pretty fantastic ways to protect themselves from predators. These insects have simple metamorphosis, so the immature nymphs, look like tiny versions of the adult. Here at the butterfly center, we raise 5 different species of exotic walking sticks. I’d like to share a little about each one with y’all!

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1 
an immature female

The Giant Prickly Stick, or Extatasoma tiaratum, is one that really draws the crowds! The females are very large, 6 to 8 inches in length, and very fat! They range in color from light peach to dark red-orange. They are often – almost all the time, actually - mistaken for a scorpion. This is no accident, this species is native to Australia, the venom-capital of the world! They spend their entire lifetime hanging in eucalyptus trees feeding on the yummy foliage and easily folding themselves to resemble a dried up leaf.

If they are spotted by a potential predator, they will curl their abdomen to look remarkably like a scorpion. This warns predators that if they don’t want a nasty sting, they should stay far away. What a clever defense! Since they are, of course, completely harmless. They have a very soft exoskeleton which keeps them confined to the safety of the tree tops. If they need to do anything like lay an egg, they drop it to the leaf-covered ground. The females have small vestigial wings, but are incapable of flight. They can lay up to 1,000 eggs in their lifetime and can live a little over a year. The males are quite a bit smaller, very thin, and excellent fliers. They are equipped with much longer antennae than the female, which they use to sniff out a mate.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
Spiny Devil

The Spiny Devil (Eurycantha calcarata), is a close neighbor of the prickly stick; they are native to New Guinea. These adorable stick insects have very different habits. They are equipped with a very hard exoskeleton that is covered in hard spines, especially the legs! Since they are a harder egg to crack, they are not as attractive to eager insect-eaters, plus, they put up quite a fight! They can use their legs as a weapon by squeezing with all of their strength. I can speak from experience and say, it hurts!

When threatened, they can put on quite a show, raising their abdomen and back legs. We like to call it “the handstand of pain!” Since the female has the freedom of reaching the ground, she uses the pointy tip of her abdomen (her ovipositor) to lay her eggs deep in the soil. The male and female look quite similar, both are wingless and they are nearly equal in size. Both sexes can live for about a year and a half as adults – not bad! The male does have one distinguishing characteristic, a single very large spine on his hind femur.

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Creative Commons License photo credit:
emills1 Ouch!

They are very territorial and use this spine for fighting. They can seriously injure or even kill another male during combat. Still want to mess with these guys? Well, the males can also emit a very foul chemical that smells just like a skunk. However, they are usually pretty laid back.

The Phyllium celebicum or moving leaf insect is a breath of fresh air. These leaf mimics are petite, dainty, have no spines or smells, and are 100 percent cute! They inhabit the rain forests of Malaysia.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

Since they have no other defense mechanisms, their camouflage has to be absolutely perfect, and well, see for yourself! They also spend their entire lives in the canopy, dropping their eggs to the ground haphazardly. The female, pictured right, has larger wings than the Giant Prickly Stick, but their only function is camouflage. The male is half the size of the female and he’s an amazing flyer! These live a little under a year and we love to have them around.

I actually noticed something very interesting from observing them. The outer 1/2 inch of the female’s body is only a layer of skin, and all of the organs are arranged down the very middle of the abdomen. This is important because I started seeing a couple of them missing chunks of their abdomen, but they didn’t appear to be injured. I’m sure they get nibbled on by several herbivores in the wild - it’s a pretty cool adaptation.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

Sharing the same rain forest is the Giant Jungle Nymph (Heteropteryx dilatata). They are spectacular, very large and beautiful. The females are bright green and usually 7 inches in length with a wide abdomen. They have small wings which they rub against their bodies to produce a hissing noise. Their thorax, abdomen, and legs have rows of sharp spines. When disturbed they thrash around violently and they also do “the handstand of pain.”

They spend most of their time in the trees and only travel to the ground to lay their eggs. The male is brown and only about 4 inches long. They have bright crimson hind wings and are very showy. They are always very nervous and thrash around a lot! This species is harder than the others to raise. They need high humidity and they take a long time to develop.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
a male

The eggs take around 17 months to hatch and the nymphs take over a year to develop into adults. This species can be very aggressive, but we always end up with a few that can be handled, they are very curious and active. 

The last resident of southeast Asia is the Annam stick insect (Baculum extradentatum). These look very similar to our native walking sticks. They are very slender and really resemble a twig. These are interesting little creatures. When disturbed, they will essentially go limp and flop to the ground. It’s really the only option for them since they are so defenseless.

The most interesting thing about this species is that they can be completely parthenogenic. This means that the females can reproduce without males. We do have males in our populations and it is a full time job making sure we don’t have too many individuals. They are egg-laying machines. Their life span is about a year and males and females look very similar, but the males are much smaller.

These walking sticks are some of the most amazing insects I’ve worked with. I’m so impressed with their diversity and beauty. Next time you see them in the Entomology Hall or in the Grand Hall, come by and see them, you’ll certainly be amazed!

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1
male
Baculum





Mantis Madness

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1 
So tiny I almost couldn’t focus

One of my favorite parts of this job is raising baby insects. It may not be like raising a baby, or even a cat or dog, (sometimes you have to feed them living things) but it is still very fun and rewarding. Plus, baby insects are really cute as you’ve seen from my previous posts. This week, the stork brought us about 100 Giant Asian Mantis nymphs. They are so cute.

Giant Asian Mantids (Hierodula membranacea) are a species of very large, impressive mantids from Southeast Asia. They are typical-looking and resemble some of our native mantis species, but are much larger. They come in a wide range of beautiful colors, such as bright green, yellow, orange, grey, pale peach, or brown.

They are quite voracious and will go after a wide variety of prey.  The adults are of one of the few species that will even eat a pinky mouse (shudder). Mantids are known as ambush predators. This is why they have camouflage coloration, which helps them hide from their predators and prey. They are not equipped for running after prey, so they have to be able to lunge and grab things very quickly. Their characteristic “praying” front legs are equipped with lines of teeth or spines to grab and hold on to squirming animals and they are very strong. Mantids also have excellent vision.  Predators in the insect world need to have accute vision to be able to see potential prey moving and flying around them.

Violet is the proud mother of these babies. She is a gorgeous specimen, bright peach colored with light violet eyes (hence the name). She is the first mantis we’ve been able to take out for Bugs on Wheels. While others may freak out and jump, fly away, or bite your hand thinking it’s a really fat cricket, Violet just climbs up and looks around curiously. It’s like she trusts us, or, just knows that we take care of her and provide her with food. We will be so sad to see her go some day, but I feel great knowing I’m raising her babies and hopefully one of them will be as special as she is.

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Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1 
Violet, posing for the camera

Raising baby mantids is really fun and easy, and it can be a great science experiment for home or the classroom. Mantis egg cases are available for purchase from a few web sites, like Insect Lore and Carolina Biological Supply, or some garden centers and nurseries. You can release most of the babies into your garden and keep the rest to raise yourself.

Once the babies hatch, they can be fed flightless fruit flies which are available from Fluker Farms.  They should be kept in a container with a mesh lid and plenty of small sticks and twigs. They need to have several places to hang from so they can molt. They should be fed fruit flies at least 3 times a week and sprayed with a fine mist of water a couple of times a week.

Once they get bigger, you can move on to feeding them small crickets, then bigger crickets and so on. If you have several, be sure to separate them as they get bigger, so they won’t eat each other. When they have made it to adulthood, you can release them into the wild, so they can start the cycle over again. 

Watching insects complete their life-cycle is really an amazing experience and it can teach you so much – maybe even mom and dad will learn something. I will leave you with this video of Violet’s green sister catching her meal. Happy bug watching.
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Learn more:
Katydid!…did she?
Big Beetle Bonanza
Vinegaroon gives birth to…grasshoppers?

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