Photo of the Week – August 13, 2015

Nebraska has 108 species of grasshoppers.  They come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes, and colors, and generally speaking, the further west you go in the state, the more species you can find.  While on a short trip to the Nebraska Sandhills last week, I was fortunate to see two of the most beautiful of Nebraska’s grasshopper species.

Lubber grasshopper. Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, Nebraska.

Plains lubber grasshopper (Brachystola magna). Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, Nebraska.

I saw several plains lubber grasshoppers (aka homesteaders) in the prairie.  These huge flightless grasshoppers are about the size of mice (more than two inches long, and very thick).  They feed primarily on wildflowers, including sunflowers and hoary vervain (Verbena stricta).  According to Grasshoppers of Nebraska, they are not crop pests but in years when their population soars, they can present a hazard to drivers because their bodies can make roads slick.  Think of that!

Lubber grasshopper. Cherry county ranch of Jim VanWinkle, Nebraska.

Here is a plains lubber on its favorite (according to some sources) food – an annual sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris).  Cherry County, Nebraska.

I also enjoyed the chance to see a painted grasshopper (Dactylotum bicolor), a species I first noticed last year on a trip to western Kansas.  This gorgeous creature might be the easiest grasshopper in Nebraska to identify – as far as I know, there isn’t anything else in the state that looks remotely like it.  Like the lubber, the painted grasshopper eats primarily wildflowers, particularly false boneset (Brickellia eupatorioides).  It likes habitat with lots of exposed soil, which is convenient for those of us trying to find and photograph them.

Painted grasshopper at the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. Nebraska.

A painted grasshopper at the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. Nebraska.  The colors and patterns on this species make it impossible to confuse with others.

Grasshoppers, and katydids, which look like grasshoppers but have much longer antennae, are a fascinating group of insects.  They have interesting and complex communication strategies and each species has its own set of dietary preferences – some are specialists on just a few plant species and others are generalists.  Only a very few are considered to be pest species, and most of those are simply native species that have adapted well to the abundant food humans provide in the form of monoculture row crops.

Perhaps most of all, the sheer abundance and biomass of grasshoppers make them ecologically important in grasslands.  If you collected all the grasshoppers from a prairie, their biomass would equal that of the bison or cattle in the same prairie.  As such, they are a major food source for many other species, including many birds, and major herbivores that influence plant communities in complex ways.

Grasshoppers are also very visually appealing if you take the time to look closely at them.  The plains lubber and painted grasshopper are particularly pretty, but every grasshopper species has its own beautiful combination of colors and patterns.  Go out and find your favorite today!

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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6 Responses to Photo of the Week – August 13, 2015

  1. Great pictures :-). I very much enjoy the sounds of grasshoppers when I walk in grasslands. I’ve started stalking them a bit lately, to get a closer look.

  2. jimfetig says:

    You just doubled my knowledge of grasshoppers. Thank you.

  3. Joanne says:

    Thanks for this posting — I am one who still has “sand in my shoes” can’t say I miss dealing with said grasshoppers; however, your lovely pictures always touch that Sandhill soul in me.

  4. Gary Shackelford says:

    Chris,

    For the painted grasshopper to prefer habitats such as exposed soil, it suggests that such a boldly marked creature is at best unpalatable and at worst poisonous to potential predators. Do you have any information about this?

  5. Justin says:

    Fantastic photos, the painted grasshopper has been on my bucket list of organisms for a long time now and envy that you had such a great photo opportunity with one.

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