Thursday, January 27, 2011

Black Field Cricket

One of the most common sounds of autumn is the call of the cricket in the family Gryllidae. These are known as the true crickets. The persistent chirping that these insects make drones on and on for what seems like an eternity; for some it is a sound that is almost musical. Their outdoor experience would not be complete without this beautiful chorus. For me however the sound these little ebony colored musicians play is akin to the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard. It is a brain piercing noise that makes my eyes twitch. So whether you love them or hate them one thing is for certain they are sure to be back each year.

The field cricket is a cold-blooded creature, just like all insects. They will take on the temperature of their surroundings. In essence what this means for the cricket is; the warmer the outside temperature, the faster and more energetic the he will sing. So in contrast when the temperature outside drops his chirping will slow down. Why do crickets sing in the first place? There are several reasons for all the noise. They advertise their presence to other males and chirp to warn them away, in theory it works like a no-trespassing sign “Keep out.” They also sing happily when they locate a particularly tasty food source. The most important reason for their singing is to attract nearby females with which to mate. With so many kinds of crickets out there how do they find each other? Each species has its own distinct call and females of their own kind can home in on the male’s song and locate the would-be suitor. How are they able to hear each other? They have special membranes located behind the middle-joint of each front leg, so essentially they have ears on their knees.

Mating takes place in the late summer or early fall. Females will use a long apparatus at the end of their abdomen called an ovipositor to inject, or deposit eggs within the soil. The eggs will stay protected within the soil all winter and hatch the following spring. The young nymphs are born looking very much like their adult counterparts, minus wings. As they feed and grow they will attain wings and reach their adult size by mid-summer. Crickets are omnivores and feed on a wide variety of foods including organic materials, decaying plant materials, fungi, and some seedling plants. Crickets will even eat their own deceased and weakened kind when there is no other food source available to them.

Crickets do have powerful mandibles (jaws) and can inflict painful bites, although these bites rarely break the skin. They are considered harmless to humans, as they do not spread any diseases or contaminate our foods. They can however be a nuisance, when they enter our homes. Sometimes they make it into our basements or worse yet our bedrooms. When one of these noisy creatures ends up in our bedroom I am up and out of the bed like a shot tearing apart the bedroom until I locate the trouble maker, all the while my husband is giving me the one-eyed, sleepy, what the heck are you doing look! I cannot sleep with one of these creatures chirping, I literally feel my eyeballs twitching with every chirp. To complicate matters, turning on the light to try and find it only makes the bug shut-up. Turn the light off, climb back into bed and it starts up again! GRRRR! After what seems like hours I finally track down the culprit and throw him outside (resisting the urge throw him in the toilet). There really isn’t any full proof way to keep them out of your house short of spraying chemicals along foundations to try and prevent them from coming in. Once the temperatures drop to freezing the crickets will die and it is up to eggs in the soil to carry on the next generation.

Crickets are found throughout history depicted in many cultures throughout the World. In China they are popular pets and are considered good luck. They are often kept in cages. In Mexico and Southeast Asia they are also used as a gambling or sports betting pastime. They are even considered a delicacy in Mexico and are consumed as part of their diet. In Brazil the singing of the cricket signals impending rain, or a financial windfall. In other parts of Brazil a black cricket in a room is said to predict illness within the household; gray one means money; and a green one signals hope. Still in other areas of Brazil they are killed immediately because of their association with death. In the United States cricket chirping is often used when a comedian tells a joke and it flops. Instead of laughter or clapping you hear the sound of chirping crickets. Walt Disney made one cricket very famous; Jiminy Cricket played the part of Pinocchio’s conscience, and continues to be the most recognized off all cartoon insects.

Crickets are nocturnal, and therefore typically only heard close to sundown and throughout the night. During the day they hide out under rocks, rotting wood, or in dense vegetation. It seems that their populations vary year to year. Some years they seem to be everywhere we look, and other years their numbers are small by comparison. These crashing populations could be victims of severe winter temperatures and ground freezing. They could also be victims of predation as there are many ground dwelling insect larvae that feed on the eggs of crickets. In years when these predators are more abundant then the cricket populations are sure to suffer as a result. Then the following year after a majority of the crickets have been consumed, the predator’s population will dwindle and the crickets rebound.

So while these noisy little creatures can be a nuisance and drive many of us crazy with their insistent singing, I have to admit being outside would not carry with it the same attraction without them. Sitting outside near a campfire, fishing and enjoying a starry night is made all the more special by the chorus of crickets in the background.

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