Throughout most of the United States, the grassy edges of gardens become noisy places in late summer as thousands of field crickets chirp in search of a mate. Some robust males will chirp all day, but the party really gets going in the evening. Then, after dark, the calls of crickets on the ground are joined by the more throbbing sounds made by katydids in shrubs and trees. Called bush crickets in the UK, katydids and crickets can be distinguished from grasshoppers by their remarkably long antennae, which is why they are sometimes called long-horned grasshoppers.
What does this have to do with growing vegetables? Crickets can enhance the overall health of an organic garden in several ways, including these:
- Crickets are major consumers of weed seeds, especially seeds shed by grassy weeds like crabgrass and foxtail. But any small weed seeds will do when cricket populations soar in early fall. In a lab study done at Michigan State University, a female field cricket ate 223 redroot pigweed seeds in 24 hours. If you multiply that by the number of cricket sounds you hear in your evening garden, easily thousands of weed seeds are being turned into manure every night. A field cricket must eat its body weight in food each day, and that food has to go somewhere.
- Cricket manure has a NPK analysis of 4-3-2, so having crickets living in your garden can contribute in a small way to soil fertility.
- Crickets chew up organic matter and help process it into humus, and eat other insects and their eggs when convenient. Crickets also serve as hosts to several predatory wasps.
- Birds, turtles, frogs and snakes eagerly eat crickets, and which often brings them within striking distance of slugs.
Besides, cricket sounds have a soothing effect once you tune into their listening channel, and provided the cricket has not become trapped inside your house. Fossil evidence shows that many species of crickets and katydids were singing at the time of the dinosaurs. For at least 50 million years, crickets have used "ears" on their legs for receiving sounds, particularly cricket chirps, which are produced when the insects rub their wings together in a certain way. An international team of scientists have recently recreated what they believe is the sound emitted by a prehistoric cricket, which sounds remarkably similar to what I hear in my garden this time of year.
Cricket chirps are meant to attract mates, but they also can attract predators. Parasitic flies and larger predators are known to find hosts for their young or a tasty dinner by following cricket sounds to their source.
As gardeners, we should celebrate crickets as a welcome sign of fall, as has been done in China for more than a thousand years. In early Chinese writings, autumn words written as glyphs took on the shape of crickets. By around 750 AD, Chinese ladies captured singing crickets and katydids in late summer, and kept them in cages by their bedsides so they could enjoy their sounds at night. Off and on for almost 2,000 years, keeping singing insects was an elegant hobby of the rich that earned common crickets lovely names like flowered bell, with certain katydids known as singing brother and singing sister. The little cricket pictured above is often called the fairy bell ringer.
As nocturnal creatures that live for only one season, garden crickets often escape our attention until we hear them, and then start seeing them under mulch or in weeds. They deserve more appreciation, which they are getting in the UK, where English field crickets are an endangered species. Active conservation efforts over twenty years have brought field crickets back from the brink of extinction, but they may never fully recover due to lost habitat.
To tune up your ears to better cricket awareness, several internet sites provide easy listening, by species. In North America, the cricket pages hosted by the University of Florida have excellent recordings of most major species. Check here for katydid sounds, which typically are heard from trees and bushes. In Great Britain, you can listen to bush crickets at British Library’s Sounds collection. The photos here are compliments of Music of Nature, home of spellbinding recordings that include bugs, birds, rain and other natural phenomenon.
Just as the songs of migratory birds bring vibrancy to spring, the calls of crickets become nature’s base rhythm in fall. Knowing that they are eating weed seeds and fertilising the garden makes me appreciate the seasonal cricket symphony even more.
All photographs courtesy of MusicofNature.org
By Barbara Pleasant