Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Fork-tailed Bush Katydid

If the sunshine and heat don't tell you its summer, the abundance of insects will. Especially the large, calling insects like cicadas, grasshoppers, crickets and the ever popular katydid. The incessant, buzzing call of "Katy-did, katy-didn't" just screams summer nights!

Can you tell I am wishing for the warmth of sunshine and the heat of summer? It's only January and after two major snow falls in the past 6 weeks, and one more on the way for this weekend, I am officially over winter!

Missouri is home to numerous specie of katydids, and the most common may be the Fork-tailed Bush Katydid (Scudderia furcata). They are bright green and reach about 2 inches in length. Late summer or early fall specimens are often highly variable in color and may be reddish-brown, brownish, pink or reddish. There are also dark, dull green varieties, but the most common color is bright green. Males have a split "tail" on the tip of the abdomen called a furcula that is key in identification. This appendage is where their species name of furcata came from and helps identify them from other similar species. Females have a long appendage extended from their abdomen as well, called an ovipositor, that is used in egg laying. They use this appendage to deposit their eggs at the edge of leaves between the layers, but may also lay eggs on twigs or leaf surfaces. Thousands of newly hatched nymphs begin appearing in late spring. They are born looking much like their adult counterparts, they lack wings and sexual appendages. After 5 or 6 instars (molts) they will reach adult size, sometime in August.
This species is widespread throughout the United States and may be the most commonly encountered katydid in their range. They are typically found in meadows, open fields and in brushy, weedy areas near woodlands.

They feed on a variety of weedy vegetation, but seem to love citrus. Their invasion of citrus groves can make growers cringe as they watch these munchers gnaw holes in their profits. They typically chew a single hole in the rind before moving onto the next piece of fruit. This ruins the fruit for human consumption rendering it unmarketable. Fortunately this is an extreme situation and would only be a serious problem if their numbers are excessive. Usually they are content to feed on grasses and weeds, and one could even argue their feeding habits control noxious weeds by preventing them from reaching the seed dispersal stage.

Their eyesight and camouflage is excellent and they are virtually impossible to see among the vegetation unless you happen to see them move. You are far more likely to hear one before you see it. They will spot you first, and disappear on the underside of a leaf. If you continue to pester them they will fly away on strong wings. Handling one is not advised. If too severely harassed they will bite to defend themselves. Their bite feels like a painful pinch, not likely to break the skin, but unpleasant just the same.

Katydids are important to the environment as a food source for numerous species of animals. Foxes, raccoons, opossums, skunks, coyotes, rodents, birds, snakes and frogs all make use of katydids as a protein packed meal. 

Each species of katydid, just like other singing insects, has their own unique song. If you are patient and inclined to do so, you may learn each call and identify them based on sound without ever spotting them. Sound is produced by something called stridulation. Males use the rigid edge of the right wing and move it across the comb-like portion of the left wing. The rubbing of these two wing portions creates the unique call we are all familiar with.

Nothing speaks to summer quite like the call of the Katydid!