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!

Photo of the Week – October 26, 2012

The plains lubber (Brachystola magna) is Nebraska’s largest grasshopper.  At about 2 1/4 inches long, and brightly colored, it’s hard to mistake for other species.  In fact, of the 108 grasshopper species in Nebraska, the plains lubber is the only one that is not in the family Acrididae.  Truly a unique individual.

The plains lubber grasshopper. The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Grasshoppers tend to have a bad reputation among many farmers and ranchers because they’re seen as competitors to livestock or as damaging feeders on crops.  In truth, only a handful of grasshopper species cause any significant “damage” to agricultural crops or pastures.  You’d think that a grasshopper the size of a lubber would eat an awful lot of grass, but in fact, the lubber primarily eats the leaves of wildflowers many people would consider weeds – especially annual sunflowers, but also kochia, hoary vervain, and prickly lettuce.  Hardly a pest, if you’re a rancher, though I hear it can sometimes be hard on cotton crops down south.

Lubbers are mostly found in the western portion of Nebraska, in mixed-grass and shortgrass prairie.  Because they have very short wings, they’re unable to fly, but are sometimes seen “migrating” on foot in large numbers.

The information I used for this post came mostly from The Grasshoppers of Nebraska, by Matthew Brust, Wyatt Hoback, and Robert Wright.It’s