Grasshopper season

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Late summer is grasshopper season for me. Even though grasshoppers are around from the first hint of spring to the last days of autumn, it seems like it’s in the hot, dry days of late August and early September that grasshoppers are most notable. Here at our new house, we wander back through fields of long grass when we go for a walk. Each step scatters a half a dozen grasshoppers from before us. They bound away, some just a foot or two, some four or five, and the odd one spreads its wings and flies off much farther.

Many of the non-fliers may still be nymphs, lacking full-grown wings, but all are very proficient jumpers. They owe this to their thick hind legs which contain strong muscles. There are two phases to the grasshopper’s jump: a crouch, and a thrust. As the grasshopper crouches, it contracts its flexor muscle to pull the lower leg tight to the upper leg. In doing so, it also flexes a bit of cartilage that acts like a spring, storing energy. Just before it releases the flexor muscle it contracts the extensor muscle, so that force is already being applied. When it releases the flexor, the “spring” snaps back, the extensor muscle contracts, and the leg kicks out rapidly and with great force. An analogy might be a catapult. As the catapult arm is winched back, it stores up considerable energy. When the winch is released, the catapult arm snaps back. If the body of the catapult was extremely light, and the catapult arm was braced against the ground instead of pointed at the sky, the mechanism would be capable of thrusting the catapult great distance (instead, they put a cup on the end and it thrusts other objects great distances).

If we could jump the same distance relative to our body length that a grasshopper can, we would be able to throw ourselves around 40 meters/yards in one leap from a standstill. At peak acceleration the grasshopper is experiencing about 20 G’s of force – a grasshopper is built to withstand this, but the same force would probably smush a human flat.

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I thought I would try to see how many species I could spot amongst our grasses in the meadows. I took photos of everything that seemed to look different, with the intention of identifying them all when I got back inside. It seemed that the vast majority of the individuals I was seeing were of the above species. It was so boldly marked, I didn’t figure I would have any trouble at all identifying it, but I never did find a name. Of the dozen or so photos I cropped and edited, though, I was only able to place labels on four. Four, that’s all!

I pulled out my Kaufman Insects, but for all its fabulousness in other departments, it seems to be lacking in the orthopterans. So I next turned to my Marshall Insects, which helped me to identify (with confirmation provided by BugGuide.net) three of the photos. Then I ran out of print references, and tried browsing BugGuide.net. I was astounded at how many species there were, virtually all of them looking similar to the others. Finally, I searched for a list of Ontario grasshoppers, and found one for the Ojibway Nature Center in Windsor that I was able to identify one more species from. But whew. I hadn’t expected it to require such effort!

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I get the impression that identification of grasshoppers from photos can be a tricky thing. For many the field marks are subtle, or you don’t know to look for them when taking the photo (such as with the tree cricket). Of course, as with all insects, there are always some that can only be identified by careful examination of their genitalia or other features requiring a microscope. And then, just to throw an extra wrench in the works, nymphs don’t always have the same pattern as their parents. I had originally thought that the grasshoppers might not be too hard to figure out, but now I’m thinking perhaps they’re a group best left to the experts, like flies or ants.

Metrioptera roeselii - Roesel’s Katydid

That said, here’s a couple of the more distinctive species I had. This one was the easiest to ID. It’s a Roesel’s Katydid, also called Shield-backed Grasshopper, Metrioptera roeselii. Its thorax has that yellow-edged flap that seems to fold down over the sides of the body. It’s a recent import from Europe, first found in North America in 1953, in Montreal. It’s now found throughout much of the northeast. Apparently there are both long- and short-winged forms, with the long-winged more common here. This one is a short-winged.

Melanoplus femurrubrum - Red-legged Grasshopper

I believe this one is a Red-legged Grasshopper, Melanoplus femurrubrum, although there are a couple of Melanoplus species that share this feature, and I’m not clear on how to differentiate them. Migratory Grasshopper, Melanoplus sanguinipes, would be another possibility, although it seemed like they generally had more pigment in the herringbone pattern of the hind legs. Both Red-legged and Migratory are fairly widespread species, with BugGuide.net having records from coast to coast.

Melanoplus femurrubrum - Red-legged Grasshopper

Another Melanoplus species (I think) that I’ve labeled Red-legged but could be something else. This one has more black markings in the wings, and a different pattern to the face. Individual variation? Separate species? I don’t know.

poss. Melanoplus differentialis - Differential Grasshopper

This might be a nymph of yet another Melanoplus species, M. differentialis, Differential Grasshopper. I stumbled across one in the nymphs section of the BugGuide.net Melanoplus page that looked very similar. It stood out from most of the others that I saw in its bright greenish-yellow colour. The majority of the grasshoppers I encountered were primarily brown.

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Speaking of nymphs, I came across a couple of these in the grass. They’re the shed exoskeletons of grasshopper nymphs as they molted from one instar to the next. Based on poking around the nymphs page I think that these (as well as the second photo in the post) were late-instar (either fourth or fifth) nymphs of Red-legged Grasshoppers. I gather the black and white arches across the shoulder of the nymph are typical of many Melanoplus species.

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Another exoskeleton. Like dragonflies or cicadas, grasshoppers have incomplete metamorphoses, hatching into adults directly out of their last-instar skins, without going through a pupal stage. As nymphs they have wing “buds” but their full-grown wings and full-length antennae don’t appear until the adult stage.

green tree cricket

This last one isn’t actually a grasshopper, but another tree cricket, a different species from the one I posted about a few weeks ago. I found this one tucked in the leaves of a milkweed. It seems to be a Black-horned Tree Cricket, Oecanthus nigricornis, identifiable by the dark antennae, dark legs, and markings on the thorax. This species tends not to spend much time in trees, instead preferring raised vegetation in meadow habitat, giving it the alternative common name of Prairie Tree Cricket.

Four days early

Graphocephala coccinea, Red-banded Leafhopper

Another beautifully mild day today, with our thermometer peaking at 17 oC (63 oF) in the sun mid-afternoon (actual temperature was somewhat lower, but not by a great deal). We’ve had a string of such nice days now. It looks like after tomorrow a cold front will move in and drop temperatures down for a few days, but by this time next week we’ll be back up again. I’ve been starved for balmy, sunny weather, I’ve been soaking it in these last few days.

So has the wildlife. I’m up to 12 species of moths recorded so far this season already. This seems to me like an extraordinary number for March 17, and I’m not sure how much of that number has to do with the string of warm days (perhaps we didn’t run into that last year?), versus me actually setting up and looking for them (I didn’t try this early last year because I didn’t want to waste my time if nothing was flying, since it was more of an effort when we were in the apartment, but this year since we’re in a house I can put the light out anyway and it’s not a big deal if nothing comes), versus simply being in a great place for moths (and everything else; I love my home).

Last night I got two moths which I took photos of this morning, after holding them chilled in the fridge overnight. Rather than just setting them up on the deck railing or on a sheet of paper or something, I hunted down a dead leaf that was still in good shape as a photo base. Most were starting to fall apart, or if they were still intact, they were curled up. Finally I found one that was whole, and mostly flat. When I picked it up and turned it over, I noticed a small white speck on the underside. It turned out to be a leafhopper. I think it’s a Red-banded Leafhopper, Graphocephala coccinea, also sometimes known as a Candy-striped Leafhopper. It’s very pale, and I suspect this may be because it had just recently emerged, and its exoskeleton was still soft (the colours in insects’ exoskeletons often strengthen as the shell hardens).

spring fly

Also something I noticed today that I hadn’t over the weekend was a profusion of flies. They were ubiquitous in open areas where leaf detritus had piled up in the fall, such as the edge of our driveway and lawn, or the clearings along the forest edge. I’m not positive on its ID. I think it might be a Stable Fly, Stomoxys calcitrans, which is a common and cosmopolitan species. I was able to rule out House Fly by the veination on the wings, but that was about as far as I got. Flies are a group I’m content to leave to someone else’s expertise.

Edit: Kirk suggests in the comments that this is a Flesh Fly, family Sarcophagidae. So not even close to Stable Fly. I told you fly ID is better left to the experts.

Winter Firefly, Ellychnia corrusca

I was intrigued by the discovery of the leafhopper, and the presence of all the flies, and thought perhaps during my walk with Raven today I’d take my camera and see what other spring insects I might be able to turn up. I wasn’t expecting much – after all, it’s only March 17 and there’s still snow on the ground in many places. But I might be lucky and find one or two.

I was surprised to discover a total of 13 individuals of 7 species today. Leafhopper and flies were #1 and 2, but species #3 was the above – fire-less fireflies known as the Winter Firefly, Ellychnia corrusca. The genus Ellychnia are all diurnal, and as such lack the light-emitting organs of most other fireflies (not much point, they wouldn’t be seen). They are also most commonly found on tree trunks, and indeed these two (plus one other) were climbing up the ridged bark of a big White Pine. The Winter Firefly, presumably taking its common name from its cool-weather tolerance and early spring appearance, also happens to be the largest firefly of the northeast by almost twice as much – the large one in this photo was probably about 18mm, perhaps 5/8″.

Twice-stabbed Ladybeetle, Chilocorus stigma

A couple trees away, sitting on the side of a hop-hornbeam, was this critter – a ladybeetle, but not the generic orange-with-black-and-white-“head” Asian Ladybeetle that we’re so used to seeing around the house and garden. This one is actually native, and discovering native ladybeetles is such a rare occurrence for me I could count the total number I’ve seen on two hands. Surprisingly, there are actually more than 480 species in North America, so I don’t know how much of my not having seen many is simply because they’re secretive compared to the Asian invaders, or because the Asian beetles are outcompeting them. This particular one, seeming the reverse in pattern from the usual black-spots-on-red, is called the Twice-stabbed Ladybeetle, Chilocorus stigma. You can see why the species was named such, but it’s a slightly morbid name, particularly when you consider the Lady in ladybeetle was actually a reference to the Virgin Mary.

There has been a general decline in ladybeetles on the continent, and in recognition of this the Lost Ladybug Project was started in an effort to build a database of ladybeetle sightings to try to help with monitoring these species (since it’s really hard for a couple of Cornell scientists to cover the entire continent). If you have any ladybeetle observations be sure to send them in!

Menecles insertus

I just happened to spot this guy sitting still in amongst the leaf litter while I was photographing a fly, not a foot away. It is a true bug with the scientific name Menecles insertus, and was easy enough to pick out in the Kaufman Insect guide by its all-brown colouring and pale stripe down its back. It seems to be a fairly common insect of the east, feeding on a range of deciduous trees. My guess would be that its brown colouring is an adaptation to a late fall and early spring adult stage, since the predominant colour in the landscape at those times of year is the brown of dead leaves. There wasn’t much info available in either resource I checked, though, and I’m simply hypothesizing that it overwinters as an adult since that would make such an early spring appearance easier.

wolf spider?

I found two of these spiders, in two different spots. I think they’re a type of wolf spider, but I don’t have a definitive ID on them yet, either. They were scuttling through the leaf litter, and, aside from the flies, were the main source of eye-catching movement that I encountered. All of the rest of the insects required examining the ground more closely.

metallic beetle

I also don’t know what this beetle is. It was just a wee little thing, less than half a cm (less than 1/4″) long, but a bright iridescent bronze. I had happened to kneel down to inspect a large rock with mica deposits in it, and as I was checking out the mica, a little beetle comes wandering up over the top of the rock in front of me, like he wanted to make sure he was counted.

Edit: In the comments, Ted makes this suggestion: “The beetle is a leaf beetle (Chrysomelidae) in the genus Graphops (subfamily Eumolpinae). It could be G. curtipennis, a common eastern North American representative, although there are a number of species in the genus that are difficult to sight ID.”

One other species I saw but didn’t post here was a diurnal moth, a small little tan guy, whose identity also remains unknown to me. It’s amazing how much time one can spend trying to identify things if one really wants to.

grasshopper nymph

Finally, species #13, was these grasshopper nymphs (above and below). I found the green one first, and was quite surprised to discover a grasshopper. I didn’t notice until I got home that it was a nymph and not an adult. Part of the presence of grasshoppers so early is explained by this. It turns out they’re both Northern Green-striped Grasshoppers, Chortophaga viridifasciata. The species has two colour morphs, with both sexes occurring in both colours, but with females predominantly green and males mostly brown. Eggs are laid and hatch in the summer and over the course of the fall the baby ‘hoppers go through a few moults. The winter arrives while they’re still nymphs, though they may be anywhere from half-grown to nearly adults. They overwinter as nymphs and emerge early in the spring to finish growing. They’re usually the first species of grasshopper to be encountered as adults in the spring because they’ve got such a huge head start on development over other species that overwinter as eggs.

Total counts to date this season: 12 species of moth, 12 species of other insect. At March 17th! And spring (the official first day) not even here yet, it’s still four days away. I just can’t get over that. It looks like we’ll have to endure a few chilly days as a cold front moves through later this week and into the weekend, but we’ll be back up to these temperatures again next week. I wonder if I should wait till the 21st to declare spring finally arrived?

grasshopper nymph