November 30, 2012

A Plague of Grasshoppers on Figueroa?

Recently, our garden staff has been finding LOADS of grasshoppers, but what are they all doing here? Are grasshoppers good for our gardens, or are they destructive like the plague of locusts (a swarming variety of grasshoppers in the family Acrididae) that appear in the Bible?

 

On November 14, I snapped a decent picture of a grasshopper hanging out on a pitcher sage plant, Lepechinia fragrans. I thought I'd have a crack at identifying it, and hoped that, through the process, I'd be able to figure out what exactly they're doing in the garden.

 

Not a bad picture for my camera phone!

 

Armed with a trusty book, the Field Guide to Grasshoppers, Katydids, and Crickets of the United States, I began my quest. It was a long and arduous quest, seriously! I spent almost an hour (okay, I know, I'm prone to hyperbole) going through the pictoral key, comparing my photo with the beautifully drawn pictures, and then cross-referencing with the species accounts, and range maps (they really helped me eliminate quite a few species straight away). Alas, it was all to no avail!

 

Not to be outdone by a "lowly" grasshopper (am I a dork because I couldn't write lowly without quotes? I don't want the grasshopper to feel bad), I turned to the INTERNET! Bugguide.net to be exact. I submitted the above picture to their ID request section on November 20, at 11:55am. Eight days, 10 hours, and 17 minutes later, the quest was over. Thanks to David J. Ferguson for the species identification, and a shout out to my homie Eric R. Eaton for helping too! This is a female Melanoplus yarrowii grasshopper, a.k.a. Yarrow's spur-throated grasshopper.

 

Okay, so now I had an identification. "So what," you may ask? Well, first and foremost, I felt vindicated. This species wasn't even in the field guide I was using, no wonder I couldn't ID it! Secondly, now that I knew the name, I could find out what this bug was all about.

 

What I discovered is that this grasshopper is indeed very closely related to the plaguing locusts of yore. I also found out that, in the late 1860s, we had our very own plague of grasshoppers right here in Los Angeles, and it lasted on and off for almost three years. According to Brian Brown, Curator of Entomology, the grasshoppers responsible for the plague was most likely Melanoplus devastator, though there aren't any actual specimens for us to examine to be sure. Whatever the exact species, these grasshoppers were apparently pretty devastating.

 

"When they had devoured all vegetation where they originated, they took flight and, flying with the wind moved in great clouds towards the east –like the locusts of Egypt, devouring everything in their course. When the destroying hosts reached the Calle de Las Chapules, the vinatero knew his grape crop for that season was doomed. The voracious hopper would not leave a green leaf on his vines, and the vineyardist considered himself fortunate if the destroying host did not devour the bark as well as the leaves." That's JM Guinn, author of The Plan of Old Los Angeles and the Story of its Highways and Byways.¹ The Calle de Las Chapules he is referring to is the former name of part of what is today Figueroa Street. That's right, it was called Grasshopper Street. Next time you're stuck in traffic on Fig, just imagine a massive swarm of grasshoppers descending on your car, I assure you, it will take away any road rage you might have!

 

Thankfully, the Yarrow's grasshopper I found is not of the swarming locust variety. It does feed on plants, and is likely chowing down on various shoots and leaves out there in our garden. As far as the gardeners can tell me though, they're not causing much damage. So we're leaving them there to live another day, eat some more leaves, lay a few eggs, pose for a few more pictures, and maybe a few of them will become lunch for a hungry bird!

 

¹ From the Historical Society of Southern California's Annual Publication Volume 3, 1893-96.

 

*Special thanks to Margaret Hardin, Curator of Anthropology for information on our Los Angeles grasshopper plague; Brian Brown, Curator of Entomology for identification of said grasshopper, and to Jonathan Gillet, Gallery Interpreter, for giving me the lead to the L.A. plague story!

 


Posted by:Lila Higgins

Great post! I love it when science and history intersect in such a dynamic way!

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