The Cricket Parade
When you see a fly or a bee buzzing around outside, do you ever wonder where it's off to next? Or where it calls "home"? Some scientists with the Agricultural Research Service are asking these questions, too. But they are especially curious about an insect called the "Mormon cricket."
The Mormon cricket looks like a grasshopper, but don't let it fool you––it's not. In fact, it's not even a true cricket! It's a kind of katydid. It lives in dry environments in the West where sagebrush and grasses grow. If you live in Utah, Montana or Nevada, you may already know the Mormon cricket.
Mormon crickets are helpful because they eat dead plant and animal matter. When munching on dead grasses, the insects break down the dry stuff into tiny pieces. This material is then returned to the soil as nutrients. Nutrients act as vitamins in the soil to help plants and trees grow.
But sometimes, the number of crickets starts to grow . . . and grow . . . and grow . . . until finally—there are millions of Mormon crickets hopping around! Imagine it: one big cricket family reunion!
The insects all march together, like a giant cricket parade, across roads and fields. They even crawl over people's houses! When many animals move together, it's called a "migration." Animals often migrate to find food or to find a place to raise their young. The cricket can't hurt you, but thousands of them moving together can do damage. The crickets crawl through fields and pastures, nibbling on crops and grasses. They love to eat wheat, barley, sugar beets and garden veggies.
Unfortunately, these are important crops, because people also like to eat them. And with so many crickets munching in their fields, farmers can lose a lot of crops––and money. So, Gregory Sword and a team of entomologists are watching the cricket migrations carefully. Entomologists are scientists who study insects.
Have you ever studied a bug for a few minutes? Some of them can move pretty fast, which makes them tricky to track. Sword's group found a great way to keep an eye on the Mormon crickets––through little radio transmitters. They use radio waves, sort of like walkie-talkies do. Last summer, he glued the transmitters to 12 crickets. Picture it: a cricket carrying a tiny radio backpack! He then released the crickets to walk with the rest of their pals.
The scientists tracked the crickets to answer questions like: How far can a cricket go? Will it hop up big hills or walk through deep valleys? The information they got back was surprising. For example, one of the crickets hiked more than one mile in a single day—on its half-inch-long legs!
The scientists will use the information they collected to develop computer models that can predict the crickets' movements. Like a weather forecast, the models will tell farmers when to watch out for the marching crickets so they'll be prepared.
—By Erin Peabody, formerly with the Agricultural Research Service