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Center for Great Plains Studies


GRASSHOPPERS

by Julie Johnson  

Early settlers battled drought and disease while trying to make a living on the Great Plains, but perhaps their most devastating plague was the periodic infestation of grasshoppers. Black clouds of these plant-eating insects were said to reach for miles, coming down in drifts two or three inches deep in some places. Their strong hind legs make them good jumpers and it's said that nothing survived their hunger; tender or tough, everything was stripped. Today scientists and farmers have devised several methods-chemicals and other insect life-to control these ravenous creatures. 
 

Despite its classification as a major pest, the grasshopper affords the classroom teacher a marvelous opportunity to incorporate science, mythology, history, and literature into a learning experience. 
 

SCIENCE: Grasshopper is the name applied to almost 9,000 different species of singing, jumping insects in two families of the order Orthoptera. Grasshoppers are long, slender, winged insects with powerful hind legs and strong mandibles, or mouthparts, adapted for chewing. They range from ½ to 4 in. (1-10 cm) in length. They have a front pair of rigid wings and a hind pair of larger, membranous wings, often brightly colored. When the wings are at rest, the hind pair folds and is covered by the front pair. Some species fly well, others poorly or not at all. There are three pairs of legs, all used for walking. The muscular hind legs are also used for jumping and for initiating flight. Grasshoppers can jump up to 20 times their body length.

In most species the singing, or stridulating, is performed only by the males. Both sexes possess auditory organs. In the late summer, the fields buzz with the singing of male grasshoppers inviting female grasshoppers to court. Rubbing their back legs against their wings, each species sings its own song. After mating, the female grasshopper lays 2 to 120 eggs in the soil, dying soon afterward. However, throughout the winter the eggs remain carefully hidden in the soil. Hatching in the spring, every grasshopper is an orphan. Young grasshoppers look like miniature adults, though they lack wings. It takes nearly two months for hoppers to become adults. As they grow, hoppers molt five or six times because they outgrow their exoskeletons just as children outgrow their clothes. After the last molt, two pairs of wings are present. The heavier, leather-like outer wings protect and cover the membranous hind wings.

Most grasshoppers are plant feeders, attacking crops such as wheat, barley, corn, rye, and oats. The migratory grasshoppers, including the locusts, are a serious threat to agriculture.

Grasshoppers are typically found in temperate regions. If you put a grasshopper's head under water it would not drown, because grasshoppers do not breathe the way humans do. Along the sides of a grasshopper are a row of ten tiny holes. These are breathing pores. Grasshoppers have one large compound eye on each side of their head. This makes it possible for them to see to the side, back, and front, They also have three single eyes but no one knows for sure what these do. They are classified in the phylum Arthropoda, class Insecta, order Orthoptera, suborders Caelifera and Ensifera, families Tettigoniidae and Acrididae respectively.

A grasshopper jumps by extending its back legs from a folded position, so that they thrust against the ground. A good jump requires two things: First, the legs have to thrust on the ground with a lot force. If the thrust is too low, the animal doesn't get a fast enough take-off and it doesn't jump very far. Second, the legs have to develop this force quickly. If the thrust builds up too slowly, the legs will extend before the thrust reaches its maximum. Once the grasshopper is standing on tip-toe, it can't thrust against the ground anymore. For an animated view of a grasshopper jumping seewysiwyg://9/http://www.st-and.ac.u..._sbms/pers/wjh/jumping/problem on the internet. 
 

Science Activities: (1) Identifying the individual parts of a grasshopper is a logical place to start any science activity.

(2) Determining the population of grasshoppers in a specific area is an activity that would be useful in a biology study. The Grasshopper Mark and Recapture (GMR) activity gives students the opportunity to learn a method for estimating the size of a population. It is an activity that could be used instead of an insect collection; it allows students to get outside; it is a hands-on activity that requires a team effort. For a detailed description of the process see:

www.accessexcellence.org/AE/AEC/AEF/1995/nevin_grasshopper.html.

(3) When I was growing up, one of the favorite activities of the neighborhood kids was a grasshopper hopping contest. Each of us would capture a grasshopper, confine it in a jar with air holes, and provide some food. Then on someone's driveway or in the cul-de-sac we would mark off a "field." At the appointed time, each of us would come with our grasshopper for the contest. We had great fun with the contest. You and your students might want to develop your own guidelines for a grasshopper contest. Some of the questions you would want to consider are: 
 

1. When and where will the event take place?

2. How long should the "playing field" be?

3. How many grasshoppers should jump at a time?

4. If different heats are run, how will the events be timed?

5. Who will be allowed on the playing field?

6. Who will act as the judge in the case of a disputed outcome?

7. Will individuals or teams be allowed to practice with their grasshoppers ahead of time?

8. How long can grasshoppers be kept prior to actual contest?

9. Where should grasshoppers be released when the contest is over? 
 

SOCIAL STUDIES: According to Charles C. Howe in his book This Place Called Kansas, the state has lost about six thousand geographical designations in her history. He records the interesting story of the town of Grasshopper Falls and the Grasshopper River in northeastern Kansas. Grasshopper Creek today drains southeast to form the Delaware River, which flows into Perry Reservoir and eventually into the Kansas River. At one time the Delaware was called Grasshopper River and the town of Valley Falls, on the upper end of Perry Reservoir, was called Grasshopper Falls. The numerous grasshopper infestations and the accompanying damage that they caused farmers in the state made the people living in the town and along the river unenthusiastic about the name. For some years they sought a change from the Kansas Legislature. Finally the state legislature agreed to change the name of the town to Sautrelle Falls and the river to the Sautrelle. Someone in the legislature had a good laugh in substituting the French word for grasshopper in the names. The citizens were more irate than ever when they discovered what had happened. They informed legislators that if they had to have the name grasshopper they wanted the good old American word and not some French version. The legislature changed the names to Valley Falls, and the river was renamed the Delaware. 
 

There are numerous references to grasshoppers in the Annals of Kansas. For example, at the Cincinnati Centennial Exposition in August 1888 a seven-foot grasshopper guarded the entrance to the Wichita Building. Inside was a four-story pagoda filled with samples of corn, wheat, rye, oats, cotton, grasses, and cocoons raised on Osage orange. 
 

In August 1919 27 Kansas counties, cooperating with KSAC (Kansas State University) in a war against grasshoppers, fed the insects 5,500 tons of mash containing 2,000 tons of bran, 100,000 gallons of syrup, 60,000 lemons, and 100 tons of arsenic. 
 

LANGUAGE ARTS: Grasshoppers also make numerous appearances in the literature of the Great Plains. A quick review of Great Plains children's books yields the following titles that have references to grasshoppers in them.

Grasshopper Year by Neola Tracy Lane

Grasshopper Summer by Ann Warren Turner

The Sodbuster Venture by Charlene Joy Talbot

Winter Wheat by Jeanne Williams

On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Young Pioneers by Rose Wilder Lane (originally published in 1933 as Let the Hurricane Roar)

Grasshoppers by Jane Dallinger 
 

There are also some adult books with grasshopper references. These would be appropriate for reading aloud or for more advanced readers. In Sod and Stubble by John Ise, see chapters nine through twelve. 
 

Grasshoppers can also offer an opportunity for vocabulary enrichment. Any or all of the following words could be incorporated into an exercise for dictionary practice, spelling, or a word puzzle. 
 

chirr-to make a characteristic shrill trilling sound as a grasshopper

Eos-in Greek mythology, goddess of the dawn

grasshopper-any of numerous orthopterous insects having hind legs adapted for leaping and chewing mouth parts

grig-n. Brit. dial. a cricket or grasshopper

jump-to spring clear of the ground, to leap

katydid-any of several large, usually green, American long-horned grasshoppers

locust-short-horned grasshopper

molt-to shed feathers, skin or the like, that will be replaced by new growth

Orthoptera-order of insects including cockroaches, mantids, walking sticks, crickets, grasshoppers, and katydids

pest-an insect or other small animal that harms or destroys plants, trees, etc.

Tithonus-in Greek mythology, a prince of Troy who was changed into a grasshopper by Eos 
 

FOLKLORE: There are many tales about grasshoppers that have become part of Great Plains folklore. As reported in theAnnals of Kansas (July 16, 1913) A Barton County farmer said that they (grasshoppers) were so big that his chickens ran for shelter thinking they were hawks. A Ness County man said it was nothing to see one or two grasshoppers tugging against a steer for a stalk of corn. 
 

Among the most original responses of folk inventors on the plains to chronic grasshopper infestations was a device called the hopperdozer. Used during the 1870s and again during the 1930s, the hopperdozer was a sort of sledge pulled or pushed through a field by a team, or during the 1930s sometimes mounted on a truck bumper. The base was a reservoir filled with coal oil. Rising vertically from the back of this pan was a barrier or screen, cloth, or tar paper. The idea of the contraption was that the hoppers would fly up in front of it, hit the barrier, and die when they fell into the coal oil. Although hopperdozers made little dent in grasshopper populations, farmers at least felt better if they could kill some of the creatures destroying their crops. For more information about hopperdozers see Plains Folk: A Commonplace of the Great Plains by Jim Hoy and Tom Isern. 
 

In 1875, just after the great grasshopper year of 1874, a correspondent of the Prairie Farmer proposed that residents of the region infested with the insects turn the plague to their own advantage by promoting the creatures as food. He pointed out that Egyptian sculptures depicted people eating and selling locusts, that the Book of Leviticus called them clean meat, and that Europeans in India ate the insects curried. The writer himself had tried the hoppers boiled, baked, fried in lard, and cooked au jus. Suggesting that butter and mint seasoned them nicely, he reported that grasshoppers had a distinctive taste that could be cultivated.

Although this may be an activity that you won't want to try with your students, we include the suggestion to point out that the range of learning opportunities related to grasshoppers is wide and hope that you will find ways to use the information and activities in your classroom. 
 

Bibliography

 

Annals of Kansas, edited by Kirke Mechem (Topeka: Kansas State Historical Society, 1954, 1956).

More True Tales of Old-Time Kansas. David Dary (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1987).

Plains Folk. Jim Hoy and Tom Isern (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987).

Sod and Stubble. John Ise (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1997).

This Place Called Kansas. Charles C. Howes (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1952).