The Welcome Sounds of Crickets Chirping

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Bush katydid

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.

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.
Common true katydid
Common true katydid

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.

Fairy bell ringer
Fairy bell ringer

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 at right 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.

Field cricket
Field cricket

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 fertilizing the garden makes me appreciate the seasonal cricket symphony even more.

All photographs courtesy of MusicofNature.org

By Barbara Pleasant

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Comments

 
"Thank you for this wonderful article with so much information! We love to mark the week we first hear crickets each year, and count on them to lull us to sleep each evening here in the San Francisco area."
Nancy L on Saturday 25 August 2012
"I agree with all above --- with the following addition: They will do anything to get in my stored potatoes! I have them hanging from my shed rafters in plastic screen netting. The crickets will find a way to drop down on the screen bags ; chew through ; and eat my spuds! Any ideas to repel them?????"
Rick Gilmore on Monday 27 August 2012
"Crickets... thanks for this. I love their songs! I did not know all the good work they did in a garden. I have not heard a cricket for a long time. I live very close to fresh water, I have snails in my garden, also lots of spiders everywhere else. Does living in a high humidity/damp area prevent them from being here?"
Gaia on Monday 27 August 2012
"Gaia, crickets are most common in tropical climates, and less common in cooler ones. In some areas populations could be low because of a high number of predators, like frogs, or the presence of certain parasitic fungi."
Barbara Pleasant on Tuesday 28 August 2012
"Crickets...oh my! Two seasons ago we suffered an invasion of crickets in our garage and the noise, mess and sheer creepiness of opening the door and having them jump all over us was less than delightful, I can assure you! They got into the garage through a tiny space where the mortar had been dislodged between two stones near the entrance. They even managed to get into our downstairs living area! It took a lot of effort to "unhouse" them...and though I am generally a great believer in protecting other species I resorted to using the shop-vac to collect them up by the hundreds just to restore some peace and cleanliness. It was just horrible:for all of us! So, sorry if I am not joining in on this hymn of praise to the humble cricket. Oh, if you care to know:They were of the type commonly known as either Jerusalem Crickets or Humpback Crickets. Feel free to chastise me but I will turn a deaf ear...experience it once and you will understand. Denise"
DR-T on Tuesday 28 August 2012
"You are unfortunate indeed to have come up against one of several species of cave crickets, which mistake basements for the caves they have inhabited for millions of years. These are not the same as garden crickets, which only become a nuisance when individuals become trapped indoors. There is nothing cute about an infestation of humpback crickets! "
Barbara Pleasant on Saturday 1 September 2012
"What about grasshoppers? I would have thought the same would apply to them, but all they seem interested in is chewing our brassica leaves, bean leaves and tomato leaves! Are they simply eating what's available because their regular food source is not?"
Mike on Friday 7 September 2012
"And I was going to make them a snack for the turtle in my garden."
frank on Friday 7 September 2012
"Grasshoppers are different insects, with mouthparts meant for devouring live plant tissue. They eat whatever they want."
Barbara Pleasant on Friday 7 September 2012
"Thanks Barbara. Is there an organic way to be rid of / deter them? My brother-in-law went on a murderous rampage with a trusty 2-by-4 after they started munching his pepper plants!"
Mike on Friday 7 September 2012
"Mike, in parts of Texas people use enclosures made of window screening to protect veggies from grasshoppers. I think habitat management helps quite a bit, which means keeping grass and weeds down around the garden, but allowing a plot of tall grass nearby where they can go. Also luck!"
Barbara Pleasant on Saturday 8 September 2012
"As I mentioned above - They will do anything to get in my stored potatoes! I have them hanging from my shed rafters in plastic screen netting. The crickets will find a way to drop down on the screen bags ; CHEW THROUGH THE SCREEN; and eat my spuds! Any ideas to repel them????? "
Rick Gilmore on Saturday 8 September 2012
"I keep my potatoes in a garbage can with a tight-fitting lid that is buried diagonally into the side of a hill. It is surrounded by crickets and a thousand other live things that never get in there. Only a lone spider, who I leave alone because she's doing more good than harm. How about trying a metal or plastic sealed container?"
Barbara Pleasant on Monday 10 September 2012
"Good ideas Barbara --- I will try that. My only concern is lack of air flow. Any thoughts?"
Rick Gilmore on Friday 14 September 2012
"Back in the summer I had some cardboard boxes in the buried can that got moldy, but I took them out and no more problems. "
Barbara Pleasant on Friday 14 September 2012
"We had crickets on our coastal San Pedro CAbb neighborhood when we moved here 26 years ago. No more. We love crickets. If we purchase crickets online can we reintroduce them into our environment? Thank you."
Peggy Reavey on Thursday 30 April 2015
"Peggy, you might want to add a groundcover to your landscape should the water situation improve. That would be the best way to provide habitat for native species. Otherwise you could keep caged crickets, as has long been done in China."
Barbara Pleasant on Thursday 30 April 2015
"They don't know the difference between weeds and my precious seedlings"
Alison on Friday 11 March 2016

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