The Diversity, Beauty, and Secret Lives of Grasshoppers

I know I say this about a lot of different insects, but grasshoppers are truly amazing creatures.  Grasshoppers have a reputation as voracious consumers of crops and forage grasses, and that reputation is well-earned.  However, the pest tag is far too often and broadly applied.  There are something like 400 species of grasshoppers in the western United States, and only about 20 species are categorized pests.  In Nebraska, we have 108 grasshopper species, with only a handful that ever cause economic damage, and that damage occurs sporadically – mainly in years when those species have population booms.

The differential grasshopper is one of only a few grasshopper species that can cause economic damage to farmers, ranchers, and gardeners. It’s a native species that has adapted very well to the way we’ve altered its world.

Unfortunately, the “Grasshoppers Destroy Crops” headline tends to swamp the many and much more interesting grasshoppers stories we should be talking about.  Let’s start with the numbers I’ve already presented.  THERE ARE 400 SPECIES OF GRASSHOPPERS IN THE WESTERN UNITED STATES AND 108 SPECIES IN NEBRASKA ALONE!  That doesn’t include katydids or crickets, by the way, just grasshoppers.  I’m guessing most of you had no idea there were that many kinds of grasshoppers.  Am I right?

I’m including a half dozen grasshopper photos in this post to show off just a taste of the beauty and diversity of grasshoppers in prairies.  If you want to read more about this, you can read an article I wrote for the August/September issue of NEBRASKAland Magazine.  While you could be forgiven for thinking there are two kinds of grasshoppers in the world – green and brown – you would be very wrong.  There are grasshoppers with much more color and pattern variation than many species of birds, but nobody makes movies about people circling the globe to see more grasshopper species than anyone else, do they?  Many band-winged grasshoppers show off gorgeous red or yellow wings as they fly, wings that rival those of butterflies, but you don’t hear about historically-prominent British Prime Ministers collecting grasshoppers, do you?

The painted grasshopper (Dactylotum bicolor) rivals any bird for beauty in color and pattern.

Now let’s discuss grasshoppers’ diet, which can include far more than just grasses.  Some grasshopper species feed high up in the canopy of prairie vegetation, while others stay on the ground.  Many have a very wide diet, including both grasses and wildflowers, but others are much more specialized, including grasshoppers that feed almost completely on one or a few wildflower species.  Grasshoppers are often seen feeding on the pollen of flowers, especially sunflowers, providing further evidence that they are much more than just grass eaters.  Most grasshopper species prefer the newest, most tender leaves of plants, but some – especially those that live mostly on the ground – make their living off of older leaves, including some dropped by their brethren living above them.  Regardless of what they like to eat, grasshoppers have very sensitive organs on the tips of their antennae that help them determine the forage quality of a leaf before they eat it.

The cudweed grasshopper (Hypochlora alba) is named for its favorite food plant – cudweed sagewort, aka white sage (Ambrosia ludoviciana), on which it is supremely well camouflaged.

When you think about animals that have sophisticated communication systems, you probably think about creatures like apes, whales, and even prairie dogs, right?  You might be surprised to learn that grasshoppers have their own complex methods of communication as well.  Every grasshopper species produces its own unique set of sounds, most of them created by rubbing their hind legs against their abdomen.  In addition, some employ what’s called “crepitation” – a loud clacking sound made by snapping their hind wings while flying.

The huge and flightless plains lubber (Brachystola magna) is as gorgeous as it is large.

Grasshoppers can also communicate visually.  They can do this by rubbing their legs against their wings, flashing their wings, and making a variety of motions with their legs.  Those visual signals can help them attract mates, defend breeding territories and feeding areas, and ward off unwanted suitors.  I’m not saying we should make documentaries about people trying to teach grasshoppers how to communicate with American Sign Language, but I’m not NOT saying it either…

This bandwing grasshopper (Oedepodinae) is about as well camouflaged as you could hope for against its sandy background.  When it flies, though, it displays very colorful wings (color and pattern varies by species).

If you’re someone who doesn’t care about the beauty, diversity, or communication abilities of grasshoppers, maybe their utilitarian value will make an impression.  As a major consumer of vegetation in prairies, grasshoppers play a huge role in nutrient cycling, a role that becomes even more important in prairies without large vertebrate grazers.  Perhaps most importantly, though, grasshoppers are a crucial food source for many other animals, including birds and other wildlife species you (hopefully?) enjoy having around.  They are large and packed with nutrients, as well as abundant and fairly easy to catch.  In addition, while they aren’t a particularly popular food item among people here in North America, grasshoppers are an important source of protein for humans in other parts of the globe.

When grasshoppers start to emerge next spring, please take a little extra time to notice and appreciate them.  See how many different colors and shapes of grasshoppers you can find in your neighborhood prairies (remembering that if their antennae are as long as their body or more, they are katydids, not grasshoppers.)  Look for the grasshoppers with big colorful wings as they clatter noisily away from your feet.  And if you’re a person of financial means, and are interested in making a movie about grasshopper watchers or people trying to teach grasshoppers how to talk to humans, call me.  I know people who know people.

How can you not like and admire the green fool grasshopper (Acrolophitus hertipes), with its raised back ridge, bright red antennae and charming face?

Photo of the Week – March 17, 2016

We burned a portion of a prairie yesterday.  As the fire was winding down, a small strip of grass near the edge was burning itself out and I walked over to play around (safely) with some photography.  I’ve always found fire to be beautiful, dating back to my days as a Boy Scout, when I’d get up well before everyone else, get a campfire going, and stare at the flames until the sun came up.  Now that I’m a burn boss, I don’t get to appreciate the aesthetic aspects of our fires very often, except during that small window at the end of operations when everything is secure and the fire is coming to a graceful end.  Most of my feelings about fire today are related to concerns with conducting safe burns, an incredible respect for both the destructive and constructive abilities of fire, and an appreciation for the way prairies respond after a fire.  However, now and then, I am grateful for an opportunity to just pause and enjoy the beauty.

Here are some of the photos I took with my phone yesterday.

The Beauty and Complexity of Prairie in 30 Seconds

I frequently give presentations on prairies to various groups of people.  With some audiences, I discuss fairly technical strategies for prairie restoration or management.  Often, however, my primary goal is to introduce my audience to the idea that prairies are more than just a lot of grass.

I think it’s fair to say that most of the general public has very little feel for what prairies really are.  That makes it difficult to sell them on the value of prairie conservation.  My presentations are always heavy on photographs, and I try to tell a lot of interesting natural history stories about the diverse plants and animals found in grasslands.  I hope that when I finish, audience members will walk out thinking prairies are a little more fascinating and worth their notice than they’d previously thought.  Maybe that spark of interest will grow into eventual support for prairie conservation among at least a few of them.

As I was preparing for another of those presentations this week, I thought (not for the first time) about the need to spread that spark of interest beyond the small number of people I can speak to in person.  Online video is one medium that can help accomplish that, so I took a crack at making one.  Since I’m a person who almost never watches a video longer than a minute or two, I kept mine very short.

So – here is my very simple attempt to provide a glimpse of prairie life in about 30 seconds.  There are no stories, just a cascade of images designed to showcase the diversity of plants, animals, and prairie landscapes people might not know exist.  If people want to learn more, they will hopefully explore a little more on their own.  Maybe they’ll even find a blog they could follow…

If the embedded video above doesn’t work for you, try clicking here instead.

And, Grant?  If you’re reading this, this one’s for you pal.  If the photos don’t do it for you, try reading this short essay by Doug Ladd, one of the smartest people I know.

Best of Prairie Ecologist Photos – 2012

As 2012 draws to a close, it seems every photo-related website and blog is putting together a “best of” series of photos from the year.  So, why not – I’ll join in.  It’s not a bad way to review the year.

I winnowed this year’s crop down to 24 images.  (Sorry if it takes a minute or so to load them all.)  Of the 24 photos, all but one has already appeared in a blog post from this year.  For those of you who enjoy this sort of challenge, you can try to figure out which one is new.

The first image shows my son helping me overseed our family prairie in January, 2012.  We’d grazed this portion of the prairie pretty hard in 2011 to suppress the dominant grasses and allow some other plants to have a chance to express themselves.  Since there are quite a few wildflower species that are rare or missing from the prairie, we also harvested and broadcast some seeds to try to help the process along.

My son Daniel, throwing seeds at our family prairie.
My son Daniel, throwing seeds at our family prairie.  Near Stockham, Nebraska.

Spring came quickly this year, and with it came early spring prescribed fires.  Fire is an important tool for land management, but can also cause significant damage when it is out of control (as we experienced later in the year).  Regardless of positive or negative impacts, there’s no denying the visual power of fire from an artistic standpoint.

An early season prescribed fire.
An early season prescribed fire.  The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies

The winter of 2011/2012 was the first time anyone around here can remember sandhill cranes staying for the winter.  The Central Platte River is well known for hosting half a million or so cranes each spring, but this past year we had thousands of them on the river all winter long.  Judging by the numbers we’ve been seeing in the last couple of weeks, we may get to repeat the sounding joy this season as well.

Sandhill cranes in the early morning.
Roosting sandhill cranes in the early morning.  Central Platte River, Nebraska.

March is always a very busy time of year for us as we split time between prescribed fire and sandhill crane tours.  I’ve taken people into viewing blinds along the Platte River well over a hundred times, but the experience never gets old.

Cranes coming into the roost at sunset.
Cranes coming into the roost at sunset.  Central Platte River, Nebraska.

Close-up photography allows me to find photo opportunities almost anywhere.  This dogbane beetle (on a dogbane plant) was photographed in a small prairie right in my hometown.

A dogbane beetle on dogbane.  Aurora, Nebraska.
A dogbane beetle on dogbane. Lincoln Creek Prairie – Aurora, Nebraska.

Similarly, this next photo was taken at a small prairie planting in the front yard of my in-laws’ place in eastern Nebraska.  Sideoats grama is one of the most distinctive-looking of the prairie grasses, but can be difficult to photograph.  On the evening this photo was taken, the wind was dead calm, and I was able to isolate and photograph this “laundry line” of sideoats flowers.

Sideoats grama flowering stem.  Sarpy County, Nebraska.
Sideoats grama. Sarpy County, Nebraska.

This mantis image came from the same night as the grass above.  The sun was dropping fast, and just as the light was fading away, I spotted this mantis and managed to get a couple shots of it before it got too dark to photograph anymore.

Praying Mantis.
Praying Mantis.  Sarpy County, Nebraska.

Every year’s weather favors a different suite of short-lived plant species in prairies and wetlands.  This year was a great year for prairie gentian (Eustoma grandiflorum).  These were photographed along the edge of a restored wetland swale in our Platte River Prairies.

Prairie gentian (Eustoma grandiflorum) along a restored wetland.
Prairie gentian growing in abundance on the edge of a wetland.  The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

While photographing the prairie gentian, I spotted this tiny katydid nymph on the edge of one of the flowers.  As long-time readers of this blog surely know, it’s a katydid rather than a grasshopper because of its very long antennae.

Katydid nymph on prairie gentian.
Katydid nymph on prairie gentian.  The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

This crab spider was hunting for pollinators on purple prairie clover flowers.  There were plenty of bees and flies around that day (though I didn’t get many good photos of them), so I’m sure it didn’t go hungry.

Crab spider on purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea).
Crab spider on purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea).  The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

In early July, we hosted two entomologists/ecologists from Missouri (James Trager and Mike Arduser) in our Platte River Prairies.  I invited them to help us evaluate our restoration work from the perspective of bees, ants, and other insects.  It was a great week, and stimulated a lot of thinking and discussion about how our management work affects insects – and how those insects affect and indicate the status of important ecological processes.  James and Mike also stopped by some prairies in southeastern Nebraska where I am helping to coordinating research.  The photo below shows James in one of those prairies.

James Trager, naturalist at the Shaw Nature Reserve, displays the finer points of a katydid in southeastern Nebraska.
James Trager, naturalist at the Shaw Nature Reserve in Missouri, displays the finer points of a katydid in southeastern Nebraska.

Tyler Janke heads up a collaborative effort to design strategies for restoring cottonwood woodland along the Missouri River in Nebraska.  I spent a July day with him, looking over some early results of various methods he’s testing.

Tyler Janke stands in front of his irrigated plots where he is restoring cottonwood woodland along the Platte River.
The Nature Conservancy’s Tyler Janke stands in front of some irrigated plots where he is testing cottonwood restoration strategies.

As I was driving home from work on a hot day in late July, I got a call that there was a wildfire on or near our Niobrara Valley Preserve.  The remote location of the fire and the weather forecast made it sound like it could be a bad one.  It certainly was.  By the time I got up there a few days later, over half of our 56,000 acre property had burned, and several neighbors had lost homes.

Aftermath of the 2012 Fairfield Creek Wildfire - The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve.
Aftermath of the 2012 Fairfield Creek Wildfire – The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Even after the dramatic changes caused by the fire, the scenery at the Preserve was as striking as ever.

Scorched grassland and yucca following the 2012 wildfire.
Scorched grassland and yucca following the 2012 wildfire.  The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Walking through the ash and soot, it was nice to see how many creatures had survived the fire.  This lizard was one of many hanging around in the few remaining shady areas in the sandhill prairies.

A fence lizard that survived the wildfire hunts in the ashes.
A fence lizard hunts for food among the ashes.

Annual sunflowers were big winners in the competition between plants within drought-stricken prairies this year.  That was true in our Platte River Prairies as well as along the Niobrara.  The photo below shows a small native bee taking advantage of one of many sunflowers that survived both the drought and the wildfire at our Niobrara Valley Preserve.

A small native bee gathers food from an annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus).
A small native bee gathers food from an annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus).  The Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

The most difficult impacts of the wildfire were economic.  The vast majority of our east bison pasture (over 7000 acres) burned, leaving the herd with little left to eat until the grass was able to recover.  I got to go back up the Preserve in early August to help the staff and volunteers with a bison roundup to sort and sell off a good portion of the herd.  Bison roundups have some similarities to cattle roundups, but bison are definitely wild animals (and really big), and now and then they can remind you of that in dramatic ways.  An example is when a big bull tries to jump over the 10 foot wall of a corral.

A bison bull tries to jump out of the corral chute during a bison roundup.
A bison bull looking for a way out of the corral chute during a bison roundup.  The Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Large portions of the Niobrara Valley Preserve and the surrounding neighborhood will look very different in the coming years, but it remains a beautiful and ecologically important place.  It will be very interesting to watch the recovery and adaptation of the species and communities that live there.

The Niobrara River flowing through the Niobrara Valley Preserve.
The Niobrara River flowing through the Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Despite the drought, many of our Platte River Prairies still had some areas of lush growth this summer.  These rosinweed plants, though not as tall as in some years, were looking just fine.

Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) in restored prairie along the Platte river.
Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) in restored prairie along the Platte river.

After a frustrating attempt in the spring to photograph prairie dogs near home, I found some more accommodating photo subjects in the Nebraska sandhills.  Judging from the feedback I received, many of you enjoyed reading about both my failed and successful attempts.

A black-tailed prairie dog in the Nebraska sandhills.
A black-tailed prairie dog in the Nebraska sandhills.  North-Central Nebraska.

The great thing about box turtles is that they’re fairly easy to keep up with as they move through the prairie.  That makes turtle photography considerably easier than, say, prairie dog photography.

An ornate box turtle in the Nebraska sandhills.
An ornate box turtle in the Nebraska sandhills.  North-Central Nebraska.

While walking through one of our wetlands in the autumn, I spotted this jumping spider watching me.  I repaid the favor.

A jumping spider on a beggarstick plant in a restored wetland.
A jumping spider on a beggarstick plant in a restored wetland.

A month or so later, I returned to the same wetland to attempt some landscape photography.  After changing my mind several times, I decided I did, in fact, like this particular photo from that day.

A restored wetland and stream along the Central Platte River.
A restored wetland and stream along the Central Platte River.

Finally, this last photo seems the most appropriate to cap off the year 2012 for me.  I was crossing a bridge over the Niobrara River a few days after the wildfire when I saw this photographer down below.  Watching the photographer capturing the beauty of the river, despite being surrounded by a charred landscape, was particularly striking.

A photographer captures the late day light coming through the falls on the Niobrara River near the Norden Bridge.
A photographer captures the late day light coming through the falls of the Niobrara River near the Norden Bridge.  The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Images have tremendous power.  Although this blog is about far more than just pretty prairie photos, those photos do play a critical role.  They help illustrate the topic being discussed, but they also showcase the beauty and diversity of an ecosystem that many people wrongly assume is flat and uninteresting.

I’m very grateful to all of you who regularly visit this blog.  I also really appreciate it when you forward your favorite posts to friends and colleagues.  Together, we can show the world how complex, beautiful, and important prairies really are.

Remember, if you want to have blog posts emailed to you, you can subscribe at the top right corner of the page.  You can even follow the blog on Twitter: @helzerprairie.

Photo of the Week – March 30, 2012

Recently, I wrote about the dangers of prescribed fire, in what turned out to be kind of a downer of a post.  Sorry about that.  My main point, really, was that burning without clear objectives is just taking a risk for no good reason.  I also think it’s important for all of us to be reminded of just how dangerous fire can be.

As a kind of counterbalance to that post, however, I present the following photo from one of our fires this spring.  To me, the photo elicits a wide range of emotions.  It illustrates both the beauty and dangerous power of fire, all wrapped up in one frozen (so to speak) moment in time.

A 2012 prescribed fire in The Nature Conservancy's Platte River Prairies.

Yes, fire can be destructive, but it’s also an important component of many ecosystems and their conservation – not to mention the critical role fire has played in the evolution of human civilization.  More to the point of this post, fire is incredibly appealing.  Just think about how many images of flames and fire appear all around us in our daily lives… 

While prescribed fires are stressful for me, I can still find time to appreciate – and sometimes even photograph – the beauty of fire as well. 

…and later, after the fire is safely out, I can appreciate the photos even more!