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Grasshoppers and Crickets (Order: Orthoptera)

A photograph of a locust (_Schistocerca gregaria_).

Locusts (like this solitary-phase Schistocerca gregaria) are perhaps the most well-known of the grasshoppers and crickets.
Photograph by Christiaan Kooyman.

One of the commonest questions asked about grasshoppers and crickets is how to tell them apart. There are a number of ways to tell if you're looking at a grasshopper or cricket:

A photograph of a grasshopper illustrating the short antennae

Grasshoppers have short antennae in comparison to crickets.

A photograph of a bush-cricket illustrating the long antennae

Crickets, like this bush-cricket, have long antennae.

Distinguishing features

Once you've seen a cricket or grasshopper, you'll always be able to recognise them - they have sturdy looking bodies and large heads, and the pronotum (the region just behind the head) is large and saddle-shaped.

In both crickets and grasshoppers, the hind legs are large in proportion to their bodies, and this enables them to jump really long distances. If you see a grasshopper in the grass, just try to touch it and you will see how well it can jump. Some entomologists have suggested that the name Orthoptera should be changed to Saltatoria, from the Greek 'saltare', meaning 'to leap'. Their back legs are described as saltatorial.

The front wings of the Orthoptera (the word comes from the Greek 'ortho' meaning 'straight' or rigid, and 'ptera' meaning wings) look somewhat 'leathery', and the hind wings are clear. This feature is also found in the cockroaches and mantids.

These insects go through incomplete metamorphosis (i.e. egg, nymphs, adult, without a pupal stage).

Distribution

Most Orthoptera live in the tropics, and there are around 18,000 species of them. Around 700 of these are found in Europe - mainly in the south - and only 30 species live in Britain. Their preference for warmer weather is also seen in the fact that only around half a dozen species are found as far north as Scotland.

Many orthopterans are flightless, and most are not good fliers, but some, such as the locusts, are famously able to fly in pursuit of food.

Singing

One noticeable feature of this order of insects is their ability to 'sing' by rubbing one part of their body against another. This noise is known as stridulation. The parts that are rubbed together are called the file and the scraper. The file has little ridges, so the effect is rather like rubbing a comb along a piece of card.

Grasshopper species can often be identified more easily by their chirping song than by examining them.

It is normally the males that stridulate, though females do it too but more quietly. When there are females about the males break into a courtship song that is different from their usual one.

Orthopteran families

There are seven European families of Orthoptera.

A photograph of the Mole cricket, _Gryllotalpa gryllotalpa_

The Mole Cricket (Gryllotalpa gryllotalpa) may be extinct in the UK and has been made a priority for conservation under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (UK BAP).

The Mole Crickets (Gryllotalpidae)

This is represented in Britain by the Common Mole Cricket (Gryllotalpa gryllotalpa) which despite its name is very rare here! It is a large insect (35mm or longer) with enormous front legs that are described as fossorial (adapted for digging). With a name like mole cricket, you can imagine that this is an insect that likes to burrow in the soil, especially damp soil.

The common mole cricket lays around 300 eggs underground and the nymphs when they hatch eat plant roots and insect grubs.

The True Crickets (Gryllidae)

The commonest member of this family in many parts of Europe is the House Cricket (Acheta domesticus). This is a native of Africa which has spread to Europe. The house cricket is found in kitchens and bakeries and other places where it is especially warm - including on rubbish dumps, where fermenting rubbish gives off warmth.

Because members of this family hold their wings flat over the body, rather than vertically, they appear more flattened than the other grasshoppers and crickets.

The house cricket is a good flier. Britain has two native true crickets - the Field Cricket (Gryllus campestris) and the Wood Cricket (Nemobius sylvestris). These are daytime insects, unlike many crickets, but they are rare and are only found in the south of England.

House Cricket _Acheta domesticus_

House Cricket (Acheta domesticus).

Bush-crickets (Tettigoniidae)

There are ten British species of bush-cricket, only 5 of which can fly. The Great Green Bush-cricket (Tettigonia viridissima) can fly very well. Bush-crickets tend to become active in late afternoon and continue singing late into the night.

The Oak Bush-cricket (Meconema thalassinum) is often attracted to light close to trees and is one of the commonest species. It is interesting in that it has no song - instead, the males of this species attract females by stamping their feet very loudly on a leaf!

Bush-crickets mostly eat animal matter, but they do eat vegetable matter as well, and one or two foreign species are completely herbivorous.

Cave Crickets (Rhaphidophoridae)

There are no British species of this family but they are represented in Britain by the Greenhouse Camel Cricket (Tachycines asynamorus) which is an Asian species sometimes found in heated greenhouses. This is a family of wingless, somewhat hump-backed insects with very long antennae.

Grasshoppers (Acrididae)

There are eleven grasshoppers in Britain, all but one of them able to fly. The one that can't is called the Meadow Grasshopper (Chorthippus parallelus) whose hind wings are stunted (or vestigial).

The different species of grasshopper tend to like different habitats. The Large Marsh Grasshopper (Stethophyma grossum) for example is only found on peat bogs. The Meadow Grasshopper, however, is much less fussy and likes any grassland that is not too dry; it is our most abundant grasshopper.

The field grasshopper _Chorthippus brunneus_

The field grasshopper (Chorthippus brunneus) is one of the commonest species in the UK.

All the grasshoppers are herbivores, mostly feeding on grasses. They lay their eggs in groups of about a dozen just under the soil or at the base of clumps of grass. The female grasshopper covers them with a frothy substance that soon hardens into a protective covering that protects them over winter. They hatch in the spring, and the young grasshoppers may be seen leaping around in May and June.

Locusts are a type of grasshopper. They are large and are strong fliers. Sometimes their populations explode, and they travel in huge swarms looking for food, causing huge damage to the crops that man has conveniently grown for them on the way! There are a few species of locusts in the Middle East that find their way to Europe, and the Migratory Locust (Locusta migratoria) lives in northern Europe, though it doesn't often build up into huge numbers there.

Groundhoppers (Tetrigidae)

These insects look like small grasshoppers but their pronotum extends back to cover the abdomen, and the forewings are reduced to small scales. The Common Groundhopper (Tetrix undulata) cannot fly, but most groundhoppers can fly well, because of their well developed hind wings.

There are three British species of groundhopper. They can be found where there is less grass than would suit the grasshoppers, and are often found close to ponds and streams. In fact, many of them are good swimmers! Groundhoppers mainly eat mosses and algae, and they survive the winter as young nymphs.

Pigmy Mole Crickets (Tridactylidae)

There are no British pygmy mole crickets but there are a small number of rare species in Europe. They are small insects that burrow in sandy soil.

Obtaining grasshoppers and crickets

Grasshoppers and crickets are not hard to catch, either in a net or by persuading them to jump directly into a container. They are easy to keep alive in large glass or Perspex containers such as old fish tanks or a terrarium. Some sand in the bottom will provide somewhere for them to lay eggs, grass will keep grasshoppers happy and a few aphids now and again will please crickets. The AES provides a caresheet for crickets.

Orthoptera do not keep their colours well after death, so a museum style reference collection of Orthoptera is mostly best kept only if you want to study them seriously.

Notes on the Jerusalem Cricket

The AES is often contacted about the Jerusalem Cricket. Although it is not found in the UK we have provided this information.

The "Child of the Ground" or "Child of the Earth" is actually a type of Cricket called a Jerusalem Cricket (Stenopelmatus fuscus). Adults are 30-50mm long, with a humped-back and long antennae. They are wingless and have shiny brown bodies with dark brown bands on abdomen. They eat other insects, plant roots, decaying vegetation, and potato tubers. They are not posionous and harmless although they may bite if handled roughly.

Jerusalem Cricket live on hill-sides, valley slopes and under rocks from Nebraska to New Mexico & Mexico, north along the pacific coast to Washington and east to Montana.

Essential reading from the Amateur Entomologists' Society

Related links: Grasshoppers & Crickets (Order: Orthoptera)

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