Take on Nature: Grasshoppers beware – there's a time for work and a time for play

A common field grasshopper (Chorthippus brunneus) – the one I caught a glimpse of was either this or else Omocestus viridulus, the common green grasshopper, says Stephen Coulter

LIKE many, I'm sure, the sight or sound of a grasshopper brings back fond memories of childhood and of times spent searching for its perfectly camouflaged frame where, in the words of Keats, it ‘rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed'.

I was fortunate one sunny day last month to have seen one in the grounds of our parish church, as it hopped out into the open in front of me. Afforded only a quick glimpse, its olive-green colour suggested it was either Omocestus viridulus, the common green grasshopper or the common field grasshopper, Chorthippus brunneus, both of which range in colour from brown through to green.

These two are the most common and widespread of the five species present in Ireland. Found in a variety of grassy habitats, grasshoppers belong to the order of insects called orthoptera which also includes groundhoppers, crickets and locusts.

The name orthoptera – derived from the Greek ‘ortho' meaning straight and ‘ptera' meaning wing – refers to the parallel-sided structure of their front wings. Dreoilín (wren) teaspaigh (sultry/hot), Irish for grasshopper, combines, I suspect, its distinctive, wren-like rattle with its liking for hot, sunny conditions.

Grasshoppers are thought to be the oldest living group of chewing, herbivorous insects, dating back to around 250 million years ago. Typically ground-dwelling insects, they have powerful hind legs, enabling them to avoid predation by quickly leaping away.

Songs are produced by a process called stridulation, where the hind leg and wing are rubbed together to produce a continuous loud ‘churring' noise. Calling songs are used by grasshoppers to attract and find a mate and although most of the singing is done by the males, females ready to mate may sing in response, also using stridulation to deliver their music.

During summer the female will lay a large egg pod containing more than a dozen eggs, which will lie buried in the soil through winter until new young hatch out the following spring.

Grasshoppers are strong flyers and are particularly active in warm sunny weather. Although notoriously difficult to find among the grasses and vegetation of our roadside verges and meadows, they do sometimes appear in the open as they sun themselves on walls or paths, just like the individual I observed.

Their liking for hot sunny weather is highlighted by words again from Keats's poem, On The Grasshopper And The Cricket, where he writes:

When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,

And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run

From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;

That is the Grashopper's – he takes the lead

In summer luxury...''

Mindful of their fascinating music making, Greek story teller Aesop, in one of his fables, plays the singing of the grasshopper off against the industry of local ants. Enquiring why the ants were carrying heavy corn kernels, the grasshopper teased the ants by asking: "Why not come and sing with me, instead of working so hard?"

The ants informed him they were all helping to store food for the winter and suggested that he should do the same. As they continued their hard work, he said: "Winter is far away and it is a glorious day to play."

The tale ends with the grasshopper dying from hunger as the cold winter months close in. Staggering towards the ant hill, he begged the ants for some of the corn they were sharing out, but they shook their heads in disgust.

The moral of the story – there's a time for work and a time for play!

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