Archive for September 15th, 2010

Science Wednesday: Invasion of the Grasshoppers

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

For the past month, Fort Collins has been full of grasshoppers. They’re everywhere: on walls, windows, sidewalks, signs, and, last Thursday, rather boldly crawling up my leg.

Grasshopper on the window of Nature's Own

Last year, the USDA conducted a grasshopper survey of the western states and found that population numbers were quite high. Because a large population = a large number of eggs laid for the following year, the USDA predicted that 2010 could see the largest grasshopper population in decades. Well, it looks like the prediction was right.

Not only did last year’s grasshoppers lay a lot of eggs, but during the three-week hatching period for those eggs earlier this summer, conditions were perfect to help most of those hatchlings survive this summer. The end result? Colorado is full of grasshoppers.

There are over 100 different species of grasshoppers in Colorado, and the insects eat everything from grasses and sedges to the flowers, vegetables and other plants you grow in your garden. In the 1930s and 1940s the grasshopper populations were so bad that Fort Collins residents brought in turkeys to help control the grasshopper populations eating their crops!

Turkeys on the Akin Farm, brought in to eat the grasshoppers

As much as people may complain about the grasshoppers (or jump up and down, shaking one leg as I did), they are beneficial organisms. Because grasshoppers are voracious eaters, they’re also abundant poopers and that nutrient-rich waste is good for the soil. So are the grasshoppers’ bodies, which decompose when generations die. Finally, many grasshoppers are able to eat poisonous plants that might otherwise be ingested by other organisms, and are themselves an abundant source of food for birds and other predators.

The last big outbreak of grasshoppers in northern Colorado happened in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and there is a chance that the high population levels this year could lead to another season full of grasshoppers next summer. However, its rare to have several years of high grasshopper populations in a row, so we’ll just have to wait and see.

Either way, the first good frost will be the end of this year’s grasshoppers and we can once again walk the streets without fear of leg hitchhikers.

September 2010

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