By: Beth Thiret
Colorado State University Extension Master Gardener in Larimer County
Look, for a moment, at life from the grasshopper’s point of view. He sees your garden as a complimentary all-you-can-eat buffet that’s open every day of the season. What you see as a lovely crop of beans near harvest for evening supper, the grasshopper sees as a quick snack before moving on to your corn, onions and carrots. When those are finished, he may decide that the perfumed flavor of a nearby flower or two would make a perfect nightcap.
No doubt about it, these jumping, flying, clinging creatures are heavy eaters and a general nuisance. As such, they have never been considered a favorite of gardeners or farmers.
While spring gardening articles were abundant with concerns of a full-on grasshopper outbreak this year, the predictions were unfounded, thanks to the odd weather we experienced in late spring. Even without the distinction of 2010 being a “grasshopper outbreak” year, there seems to be an unusual number of the pests around town this season. Driving and hearing telltale “thwacks” of grasshoppers slamming into the sides of cars, is a reminder that this is, at the very least, an above average year. Bites and nibbles are being taken out of home gardens at what seems like lightning speed. Moreover, we have all experienced grasshoppers clinging to clothing.
In Colorado there are over 100 different species of grasshoppers. The prize for the “most beautiful” grasshopper would likely be awarded to the Barber pole grasshopper (Dactylotum bicolor). They have been spotted in the LaPorte area this season and are easily identified by their colorful markings of orange, black and yellow. Although not considered terribly destructive, they have distant relatives that get that reward. Some of their more destructive (and less attractive) cousins are the Differential grasshopper (Melanoplus differentialis) and the Migratory grasshopper (Melanoplus sanguinipes). The Twostriped grasshopper (Melanoplus bivittatus) is one of the most common species you are likely to come across munching through your garden. They move in from empty lots and roadsides and will nibble their way through your corn, beans, peppers and onions—to name a few—before you can say succotash.
As long as these insects remain as non-damaging, non-migratory and in low populations, they are referred to as “grasshoppers.” When grasshoppers change their behavior and begin to migrate, damage and swarm, they are referred to as the ultimate Bad Boy Grasshoppers—“locusts.” If you have ever read the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House on the Prairie book series, you are probably familiar with the 1870s Rocky Mountain Locust plague. During this period, the Rocky Mountain locust, (Melanoplus spretus), expanded its range from the Rocky Mountains and swarmed across the great plains of Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, the Dakotas and Minnesota. Settlers battled locust for years with their swarms peaking between 1873 and 1877. Many of the early homesteaders were unable to withstand the plague and lost their crops and livelihoods. The last sighting of the Rocky Mountain locust was in 1902. Their extinction is believed to have been caused by the introduction of agriculture and livestock to the Great Plains. This reduced the natural grasslands which fed the locust. During the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, grasshoppers were about the only things that were resilient enough to survive the dust storms. They ate everything in sight and were even seen eating the wood off the sides of barns.
At this point in the gardening season, it is best to turn your attention to next year for grasshopper control. One way to help reduce the influx of grasshoppers is to till your garden soil and rake your lawn in the late fall. This will expose the tightly clustered pods of eggs that have been laid. These eggs cannot survive cold temperatures of winter without soil protection. It can easily feel like a futile effort, however, since eggs left undisturbed nearby will most likely lead to hopping grasshopper nymphs next spring. Sprays and insecticidal baits are most effective in grasshopper control if used when the grasshoppers are young. As grasshoppers mature, they become more difficult to control. Because of their high mobility, they are often unaffected by baits or sprays late in the season. For more information on baits and sprays for grasshopper control, refer to CSU Extension Fact Sheet #5.536 at www.ext.colostate.edu and remember to always follow packaging directions.
To save what remains of your grasshopper-decimated garden, here are a few things you can try. Placing screening or cheesecloth barriers over your favorite plants can help deter the pests; however, they will even eat through fabric if the temptation is strong enough. Then there is always the Catch-22 of utilizing backyard hens. While hens and other poultry will happily eat the grasshoppers, they are also known to scratch up gardens and harm plants they are supposed to protect.
There is a glass-half-full side to the grasshopper story. Their droppings, or frass, return nutrients to the soil for better crop development and they are a food source to many birds, rodents and lizards. Some, like the Russian thistle grasshopper (Aeoloplides turnbulli), even eat weeds—although there is not any research showing they are fond of bindweed. If all else fails, just acknowledge that there are several cultures around the world that eat grasshoppers. They contain a high amount of protein and the low amount of fat is unsaturated! But do your research before consuming—failure to properly clean and cook them can lead to tapeworm infections, which is a much worse dilemma than eaten plants.
If you find yourself looking for even more information on the lives of grasshoppers, the USDA has an extensive website, www.sidney.ars.usda.gov/grasshopper that offers in depth details on these garden-gorging creatures.
The author has received training through Colorado State University Extension’s Master Gardener program and is a Master Gardener volunteer for Larimer County.
Larimer County is a county-based outreach of Colorado State University Extension providing information you can trust to deal with current issues in agriculture, horticulture, nutrition and food safety, 4-H, small acreage, money management and parenting. For more information about CSU Extension, Larimer County, telephone (970) 498-6000 or visit www.larimer.org/ext
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