- A Shy Insect
- Where and How Do Crickets Live?
- Crickets: from Music to Literature
Are you lying in bed at night, with your window open to a starry sky, with the breeze coming through to stroke your cheeks and, like in a romantic novel, what you find most soothing, most calming and most congenial to sleep and sweet dreams is the ‘lullaby of nature’? Then you know what I am talking about: the sweet song of crickets of course! Technically called a “chirp”, this inimitable and unmistakable sound is often the only thing many people know of these tiny animals.
A Shy Insect
In fact, it is fairly hard to actually see a cricket; maybe because they are nocturnal beings, or because they hide in tall grass or under rocks, most people have never spotted one of these shy insects with their own eyes. Although nature has blessed us with more than an incredible 900 species of crickets (these are at least those known to humans, but with parts of the world still to be explored, like Papua New Guinea, and with insects being the species more frequently discovered by researchers and explorers, we may as well assume that one day this count will cross the one thousand mark), most of these animals of the Gryllidae family display similar physical features.
To start with, they are fairly small; depending on the exact species, they vary from 3 millimetres to 5 centimetres in length. Their hind legs are long and strong, a bit like those of grasshoppers (to whom they are related) and they have feet with three joints. This is because they serve the same functions as those of their diurnal relatives: they are designed for jumping. Hold yourself tight now… a cricket can jump as far as 3 feet! That’s the same as if a man could jump more than 50 yards! Not bad for a small and unassuming athlete…
Where and How Do Crickets Live?
Once upon a time, people used to be much more accustomed to the chirp of crickets; this is because urbanisation and intensive and chemical farming have destroyed their natural habitat. Unless you live in the countryside, the chances are that your nights will not be blessed by their fabulous song. So, where do crickets live? They prefer places where they can hide from predators, like prairies with tall grass, wild meadows, mulch piles, piles of logs and even of rocks. However, as we will see later, some of them live in trees. They are animals that like to be heard, but do not like to be seen.
In order to hide and camouflage, they have unassuming colors, ranging from brownish to near black. However, if you have the chance to see one close by, you will see beautiful patterns on some of them. Their diet is very varied, in fact, unlike grasshoppers, that are herbivores, crickets are omnivorous insects. They will eat rotting leaves, fruits and vegetables, but also small insects and invertebrates. But if they could tell you which one is their favorite food, they would say, “Carrot peels, for sure!” So, if for some reason you want to attract one of these animals, maybe to show crickets to your children, you can do it by leaving what is for them a real delicacy next to tall grass, a pile of rocks or mulch etc. Remember that crickets will not venture very far from their safe haven, so it is no use putting carrot peels in the middle of a a large patch of barren and sandy ground.
Here’s a handy video explaining how crickets can enter people’s homes:
Crickets: from Music to Literature
Crickets, since the times of Collodi, the author of the famous children story Pinocchio, have been associated with wisdom. This has been then taken up by movies etc. and it is now part of the collective imagination. The English language has some interesting idioms with the word “cricket” (meaning the animal), which may give you an idea of how this elusive insect has become part of our culture. These include “cricket on the hearth” (a symbol of good luck, from the homonymous novella by the great Charle Dickens) and “merry as a cricket” (maybe because they sing all the time?).
Well, it is obvious that such an original, mysterious and interesting animal should have caught the interest of writers, readers and children all over the world. The Dickensian story was even turned into opera by Alexander Mackenzie. Ah, talking about music… How do crickets make that amazing sound? This is the question you have wanted to ask from the beginning of the article, I am sure…
To start with, if you thought they were actually singing you are mistaken. Crickets, from what we know, make no sounds with their mouths and have no vocal chords like us. Instead, the majority of crickets produce their chirp with their forewings. Yes, because they have what can be described as teeth on their forewings, and an amazing 50 to 250 of them in each row, and they scrape them together very fast to make that unmistakable sound… When we say very fast, we mean incredibly fast indeed, with a frequency between 1,500 to 10,000 cycles(!!!) per second! Not per hour, not per minute either, but per second… Not only, but the warmer it gets, the faster they go. Ironically, bigger crickets use slower frequencies than smaller ones. In the end, we have all seen how small animals can be as fast as lightning…
And if you thought that they could actually hear their chirps, you would be mistaken as well… “Hold on,” you may say, “why do they sing if they cannot hear it?” The reality is that they perceive the sounds, in the form of vibrations, not with ears, but with their forelegs, which they use as receptors, a bit as spiders do.
But why do they chirp all the time? Well, as with most things, it has to do with love. Crickets make this vibrant sound to attract companions and keep away competitors. It is a bit like peacocks and their beautiful tails…
Some Strange Facts
Did you know that young crickets are called nymphs and that they shed their skin like snakes, i.e. they molt? If you didn’t, now you do.
Having said all this, let’s look at so,e of the most common cricket species in detail…
The Field Cricket
This is possibly the most known and common cricket species in Europe and North America. With the scientific name of Acheta, but also Gryllus assimilis and others, this term refers to a group of species found in fields in these regions of the planet. They are called so because they live in tall grass fields and prairies. They prefer very mild to warm weather, so, do not expect them in cold places, or places where the temperature changes too much and too fast, because that would hamper their life cycle; in fact, the ideal temperature is between 27 and 32 degrees Celsius, which is perfect for them to reach sexual maturity and reproduce.
They feed on vegetables and small insects and invertebrates (both live and dead) and they are known to eat grasshopper eggs. Sometimes, if it becomes too cold outside, they can pack up and move into structures built by humans, like barns, sheds etc.
The Mormon Cricket
When we said that crickets are not usually colorful, we did not include this species; in fact, they have shields (which cover wings in insects like ladybirds, cockroaches, beetles etc.) that can be black, green, red or purple and their abdomens are striped. This renders them much more visible than most other crickets.
They are native of North America and take their common name from Mormon settlements in the State of Utah, though their scientific name is Anabrus simplex.it is also a giant cricket as it can grow to be an amazing 8 cm (2.5 inches) long in some cases. This makes it one of the most original, unusual crickets on Earth. They feed on alfalfa and sagebrush in particular, rather than insects and decomposing matter like most other crickets.
They are famous for being playing an important role in Mormon history (as their name suggests) because in 1848 they were part of the Miracle of the Gulls, when these birds saved lots of Mormon crops by eating up all the insects (including these crickets, as gulls are their primary predators.
The Jerusalem Cricket
This is yet another famous and peculiar species, because its head resembles that of a human being! Yes, you heard that right! In fact, if you look at it, you can spot eyes, a mouth etc. It is also different from other crickets because its head is very clearly separated from the rest of the body. It has a striped black and brownish-yellow abdomen, which is quite rounded and brown-reddish head and legs.
Unlike other crickets, Jerusalem Crickets sometimes bite! That too sets them apart from their relatives. It is not actually one species, but many, all called Stenopelmatus. They live in Mexico and in the States, and they have strong mandibles, as you might have guessed, which they use to dig holes in the ground, because they mainly feed on tubers. They are certainly a very odd species indeed.
The Snowy Tree Cricket
This species is very, very interesting indeed. Its Latin name is Oecanthus fultoni and it is quite special. In fact, it is commonly known as the Thermometer Cricket. Why? Because if you count the number of its chirps every 15 seconds and you add 40 you get the temperature of the place in Fahrenheit. It is slightly different from other crickets because it is of light green color and has a very particular shape, with a narrow head and a large abdomen rounded at the back..
The House Cricket
This is the only cricket that easily adapts to living inside people’s homes and can, if you do not like their presence, become a nuisance. However, if you live in the States or in Europe, you are unlikely to have met this insect, whose Latin name is Acheta domesticus, because it is original of South East Asia. It is, interestingly, even kept as a pet in China and Japan. It is a small animal (it gets to about 2 cm long) of a light brownish color and males and females look similar (though males grow to be bigger).
It also has an important function in the pet industry, because it is used as an insect to feed to small animals. Once upon a time, it was also bred in North America and in Europe for this purpose; however, in 2002 it was discovered that it carried a virus, known by the ominous name of cricket paralysis virus. Since then, it has been eradicated in the West.
On the contrary, in Eastern countries, it is even used as food for humans; in China and nearby countries, this cricket is famously cooked, either roasted or deep fried, to be then served in restaurants as a delicacy…
I hope you have enjoyed this journey into the varied and amazing world of crickets. These amazing animals have some characteristics which set them apart form so many other insects, first and foremost their ability to ‘sing’ or, to be more correct, to chirp. There are crickets that dig holes to eat roots and even bite, others that are used as pet food, others that can be used to measure the temperature of the place you are in and even some that have been major actors in a miracle. For sure, after reading this article you will agree that there is much mire to a cricket than meets the eye!