Saturday, August 11, 2007
There is a green grasshopper in the ornamental plum tree. It’s rich velvety green color suggests a gladiator katydid, but binoculars reveal its antennae are more like a creosote grasshopper. No, that’s not right either, there are no markings on the legs.
With its green image seared into my memory I type “green grasshopper” into Google and the hunt begins. Eventually, I’m at BugGuide searching through the taxonomic trees of grasshoppers. I finally come across a photo that matches and the name in the caption surprises me completely.
This green beauty is a nymph or juvenile form of my old friend the gray bird grasshopper (Schistocerca nitens).
The gray bird seems to appear out of the ether in mid-to-late summer, when actually like any good magician it was hiding in plain view. The young gray bird grasshopper looks completely different from the long, hard, gray body it will have in a few months.
Because the grasshopper’s exoskeleton carries its color, new markings or even completely different coloration can appear with each molt of the exoskeleton. As the grasshopper grows it will molt multiple times. It is a typical and successful natural strategy: blend in with the background when you are young and vulnerable, change your appearance with adulthood so you can attract a mate and reproduce. When you are a creature born in an ecosystem that is green in spring and dries to a crackly brown by late summer, its a huge plus if you can change your coloration to fit in.
This year, southern California skipped through its green phase and went directly to parched brown. Irrigated yards are the greatest outpost of green. Perhaps that is why this young gray bird grasshopper appeared. The food possibilities are much greater this year along suburb sidewalks. But this little guy jeopardized invisiablity by chosing to snack on purple foliage. On these leaves, it was definitely not camouflaged.
Sunday, August 05, 2007
They emerge from the soil, crawl out of their skins and make a droning buzz that eats away at human sanity. For many people it is hard to appreciate the charm and beauty of the cicada.
Across North America various species of cicadas in a range of sizes and colors, fill the summer with a variety of buzzing frequencies. These alien-looking creatures spend most of their lives underground feeding on sap from plant roots. But, after a preordained time and usually urged on by a soaking rain, they dig up out of the ground. With oversized front claws they pull their plump nymph bodies up onto bush branches, tree trunks, even lawn furniture and front porches. They find an elevated location to shed their ground-dwelling persona and emerge as creatures of the air–complete with large, glassine-looking wings.
This spring and summer a special group of cicadas has been completing their cycle of life. These cicadas have been underground for 17 years. That’s right insects, old enough to drive in most states.
When you are crawling up out of the ground and plan to spend an hour or two in the vulnerable position of cracking open your skin and resting while your new exoskeleton hardens up and your wings unfurl, it is always wise to embark on such a venture with as many friends as possible.
Seventeen-year cicadas emerge by the thousands, even tens of thousands. Some groups cover multiple square miles. The husks of their old bodies cling everywhere like aged and discard rice-paper lanterns. The vibrating hum of their mating song overwhelms all other sounds. It is a mass invasion. For the insect-phobic, it can seem like a B-movie nightmare.
But the cicada’s time is short and their numbers over the centuries have been declining as more and more of their native habitat disappears. It is hard to move out of human development’s way, when you are a small creature living quietly underground.
The 17-year cicada is a marvel. Rather than disparage, we humans would do better to appreciate and embrace what we have in common.
Up through the morning crust
of yesterday’s mud
Drag alien body into unknown worlds
Through silken air
Toward whispering leaves
Brilliant greens intoxicate
Beguiling sun caresses
Enticing you to shed
Suit of earthen armor
Decades of terrestrial brown
for velvety black
for luminous silver
for ruby eyes
The comfort of dirt
For precious days of blue skies
And a chance to sing
songs of summer love.
- by Keri Dearborn
First published in Cicada magazine in September/October 1998 and republished in July/August 2007
For more on cicadas, check out cicadamania.com