Grasshoppers: The Family Acrididae

Their Life Cycle, Mating Habits, and Place in Folklore

Most grasshoppers belong to the family Acrididae.
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Most grasshoppers that you find in your garden, along the side of the road, or perhaps while walking through a summer meadow belong to the family Acrididae. The group is subdivided into several subfamilies that include slant-faced grasshoppers, stridulating grasshoppers, Band-winged grasshoppers, and some of the better-known locusts. Most of the 11,000 or so species grasshoppers are medium to large in relation to other insects but members of this huge family vary greatly in size, ranging from less than half-an-inch to more than three inches in length. Since many are gray or brown in color, they are easily camouflaged by the vegetation in their natural habitats.

In the Acrididae family, the "ears," or auditory organs, are located on the sides of the first abdominal segments and are covered by the wings (when present). Their antennae are short, typically extending less than half the grasshopper's body length. A plate-like structure called the pronotum covers the grasshopper's thorax, or chest, never extending beyond the base of the wings. The tarsi, or back legs, have three segments.

Classification

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Arthropoda
  • Class: Insecta
  • Order: Orthoptera
  • Family: Acrididae

The Grasshopper Diet: Eating and Eaten

Grasshoppers commonly feed on plant foliage, with a particular fondness for grasses and spurges. When grasshopper populations become large, swarms of them can defoliate grasslands and agricultural crops over large areas.

In addition to natural predators, grasshoppers are consumed as human food in many countries, including Mexico, China, and nations in Africa and the Middle East.

Life Cycle

Grasshoppers, like all members of the order Orthoptera, undergo simple or incomplete metamorphosis with three life stages: egg, nymph, and adult.

  • Egg: Female grasshoppers lay fertilized eggs in midsummer, covering them with a sticky substance that dries to create an egg pod. Pods contain between 15 to 150 eggs, depending on the species. One female grasshopper may lay up to 25 pods. The eggs remain buried beneath one to two inches of sand or leaf litter for about 10 months over autumn and winter, hatching into nymphs in spring or early summer.
  • Nymph: Grasshopper nymphs, a.k.a. molts, resemble adult grasshoppers, except they lack wings and reproductive organs. Nymphs begin feeding on plant foliage as soon as one day after hatching from the egg and undergo five substages of development, known as instars before reaching full maturity. During each instar, nymphs shed their skin cuticles (molt) and their wings continue to grow. It takes five to six weeks for a nymph to mature into an adult grasshopper.
  • Adult: After the final molt, it may still take a month before an adult grasshopper’s wings are fully developed. While their reproductive organs are fully grown, female grasshoppers do not lay eggs until they’re about a week or two into adulthood. This allows lets them gain enough bodyweight to accommodate egg-laying. Once a female begins laying eggs, she continues to do so every three to four days until she dies. The lifespan of an adult grasshopper is about two months, depending on the weather and other factors such as predation.

    Interesting Behaviors

    • Many male grasshoppers in the family Acrididae employ courtship calls to attract mates. Most of them use a form of stridulation, in which they rub pegs on the inside of their hind legs against a thickened edge of the wing to create their familiar songs.
    • Band-winged grasshoppers snap their wings while in flight, making an audible crackle.
    • In some species, the male may continue to guard the female after mating, riding on her back for a day or more to discourage her from mating with other males.

    Range and Distribution:

    Most Acridid grasshoppers inhabit grasslands, although some live in forests or even habitats that feature aquatic vegetation. More than 11,000 species have been described worldwide, with more than 600 of them living in North America.

    Grasshoppers in Folklore

    The ancient Greek storyteller Aesop is credited with "The Ant and the Grasshopper," a tale in which an ant works hard preparing for winter while the grasshopper plays. When winter comes, the grasshopper asks for shelter and food from the ant, who refuses, leaving the grasshopper to starve.

    The folklore of many Native American tribes includes grasshoppers. The insects’ roles in these stories vary greatly, depending on whether the tribe is an agrarian or hunter-gatherer society. In agrarian cultures, grasshoppers are viewed in a negative context, since swarms of them often decimated crops. They're often portrayed as lazy, shiftless, or greedy characters, and they're also associated with bad luck or discord. (Amongst the Hopi, grasshoppers are said to nip the noses of children who disobey elders or violate tribal taboos.) 

    Grasshoppers fare much better in the folk traditions of hunter-gather tribes, who imbued them with the powers not only to predict the weather—but to change it outright—bringing rain to end a drought, or causing rain to cease during a deluge. 

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