10 Fascinating Facts About Grasshoppers

Colorful grasshopper.

Jim Simmen/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Grasshoppers are both beloved characters in children's stories and despised pests that plague farmers and ranchers. Their songs contribute to the soundtrack of summer. Although grasshoppers are one of the insects we encounter nearly every day, most people know very little about them.

1. Grasshoppers and Locusts Are the Same

At the mention of grasshoppers, most people will recall pleasant childhood memories of trying to catch the insects in meadows or backyards. Say the word locusts, however, and most will think of historic plagues, of pests raining down on farm fields and eating every plant in sight. Truth be told, grasshoppers and locusts are one and the same. Yes, we have some species we've dubbed grasshoppers and others we call locusts, but both creatures are short-horned members of the order Orthoptera. The jumping herbivores with shorter antennae are grouped into the suborder Caelifera, while their longer-horned brethren (crickets and katydids) belong to the suborder Ensifera.

2. Grasshoppers Have Ears on Their Bellies

In grasshoppers, the auditory organs are in a rather unusual location—on the abdomen. On each side of the first abdominal segment, tucked under the wings, you'll find membranes that vibrate in response to sound waves. This simple eardrum, called a tympana, allows the grasshopper to hear the songs of its fellow grasshoppers.

3. Although Grasshoppers Can Hear, They Can't Distinguish Pitch Very Well

As in most insects, the grasshopper's auditory organs are simple structures. They can detect differences in intensity and rhythm, but not pitch. The male grasshopper's song isn't particularly melodic since females don't care whether a fellow can carry a tune. Each species produces a characteristic rhythm that distinguishes its song from others and enables courting males and females of a given species to find each other.

4. Grasshoppers Make Music by Stridulating or Crepitating

That sounds complicated, doesn't it? Most grasshoppers stridulate, which simply means that they rub their hind leg against their forewing. Special pegs on the inside of the hind leg act like a percussion instrument of sorts when they come in contact with the thickened edge of the wing. The band-winged grasshoppers crepitate or snap their wings loudly as they fly.

5. Grasshoppers Can Fly

Because grasshoppers have such powerful jumping legs, people sometimes don't realize that they have wings, too. Most grasshoppers are pretty strong fliers and will make good use of their wings to escape predators. Their jumping ability just gives them a boost into the air.

6. Grasshoppers Jump by Catapulting Themselves Into the Air

If you've ever tried to catch a grasshopper, you know how far they can jump to flee danger. If humans could jump the way grasshoppers do, we would be able to easily leap the length of a football field. How do these insects jump so far? It's all in those big, back legs. A grasshopper's hind legs function like miniature catapults. In preparation for a jump, the grasshopper contracts its large flexor muscles slowly, bending its hind legs at the knee joint. A special piece of cuticle within the knee acts as a spring, storing up all that potential energy. Then the grasshopper relaxes its leg muscles, allowing the spring to release its energy and catapult the body into the air.

7. Grasshoppers Cause Billions of Dollars in Damage to Food Crops Annually

A lone grasshopper doesn't do much harm, although it eats about half its body weight in plants per day. But when locusts swarm, their combined feeding habits can completely defoliate a landscape, leaving farmers without crops and people without food. In the U.S. alone, grasshoppers cause about $1.5 billion in damage to grazing lands each year. A desert locust swarm in Kenya in 1954 consumed over 75 square miles of wild and cultivated plants.

8. Grasshoppers Are an Important Source of Protein

Grasshoppers are delicious. People have eaten locusts and grasshoppers for centuries. Even John the Baptist ate locusts and honey in the wilderness, according to the Bible. In many areas of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, locusts and grasshoppers are a regular ingredient in the local diet. And grasshoppers are packed with protein, so they're an important nutritional staple as well.

9. Grasshoppers Existed Long Before Dinosaurs

Modern-day grasshoppers descend from ancient ancestors that lived long before dinosaurs roamed the Earth. The fossil record shows that primitive grasshoppers first appeared during the Carboniferous period, more than 300 million years ago. Most ancient grasshoppers are preserved as fossils, although grasshopper nymphs are occasionally found in amber.

10. Grasshoppers May "Spit" Liquid to Defend Themselves

If you've ever handled grasshoppers, you've probably had a few spit brown liquid on you in protest. Scientists believe this behavior is a means of self-defense, and the liquid helps the insects repel predators. Some people say grasshoppers spit "tobacco juice," probably because grasshoppers have been associated with tobacco crops in the past. Rest assured, though, the grasshoppers aren't using you as a spittoon.