Southwest Florida gardeners, beware: Lubber season is upon us, and the biggest grasshoppers you’ve ever seen will soon be munching their way through your foliage. Actually, it’s not as bad as it sounds. If you can get past their somewhat alarming appearance, the largest North American grasshopper is a really fascinating animal.
Of course, they start out pretty small. The eastern lubber grassphoppers that we’ll soon be seeing have spent the winter in a hole in the ground, but they’re not the big adults. Those are all dead. Like most grasshoppers, lubbers are an annual — they hatch, grow, reproduce and die in a single year. Very rarely an adult will survive the winter, but that’s definitely not the usual situation.
Baby lubbers, called nymphs, are quite sharp-looking. They’re shiny black with yellow racing stripes, making them impossible to mistake for any other grasshopper. They also really like the company of their own kind, and it’s not uncommon to see groups of several dozen clustered on one plant. As they mature, they become loners and leave their friends behind.
The bright colors advertise toxicity. From the time they hatch, lubbers are poisonous. They also have the ability to isolate plant toxins from their diet, which means they become more poisonous the older they get. For the dumber predators that don’t get the message and try eating them anyway, lubbers have a more pointed method: They are able to emit a mist-like spray of toxic chemicals. That’ll get your attention.
Where this spray comes from might seem mysterious, since it’s emitted from the body. If you wanted to spray someone with water using only the equipment with which you were born, you might take a mouthful and then spritz it out. (Yes, there are other methods, but this is a family-friendly publication.) This method works because you can use the air in your lungs to pressurize the spray.
Insects have no lungs. Instead, they breathe through the tracheal system — a series of hollow sacs in the body cavity, connected to one another by tracheal tubes and to the outside atmosphere through spiracles. The spiracles are tiny orifices located on the sides of the thorax and abdomen, and those are where the toxic spray emits. What can I tell you — nature is weird, man.
Like other grasshoppers, lubbers undergo significant changes as they age. In insects, these changes occur in stages called instars. Each instar begins with a molt — the shedding of the old exoskeleton. Lubbers have a total of six instars from hatching to the adult form. Each instar is larger than the last and looks a little more like the adult. For example, the wings, which are just wee nubbins in the first instar, are about half-formed by the fifth instar.
The nymph keeps its juvenile coloration until the final molt. Adults are typically yellow to orange with a streak of reddish pink on the wings. Males are notably smaller at about 2.5 to 3 inches. Females, which have to be bigger to make room for all the eggs, can grow to nearly 5 inches and are also of significantly heavier build.
There are other color forms, which are rare in Southwest Florida but common in other parts of this grasshopper’s range (eastern Texas to North Carolina). One form retains the juvenile coloration. Another is mostly black with a cream-colored face and belly.
Being large insects, lubbers have large appetites. However, they’re not as hungry as their size might make you think. Since they can’t fly (their wings are far too small) and rarely hop (they’re just too heavy), lubbers generally walk. With poison to protect them from most vertebrate predators — the Virginia opossum, which love crunchy lubbers, being the exception — they have no need for speed. Their energy output is low, so they don’t feed as much as other grasshoppers. But when they do, they can do significant damage to the plants they favor, especially when a large group of nymphs feed together.
Favorite plants include cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, etc.), legumes (beans and peas), amaryllis, crinum lilies, oleander and Mexican petunia. These plants may be completely defoliated. Other species will have the young, tender growth gnawed off.
If you feel that you must try to control lubber grasshoppers, be aware that they’re used to poisons in their diet. Spraying the leaves doesn’t do much to them, but will kill many other insects that you might rather have around. The best and most effective control is hand-removal, which is relatively easy because of their size and bright coloration. Dropping them in a jar of rubbing alcohol kills them quickly.
Personally, I have given up the fight. While I have several hundred lubber kills to my credit, I’ve decided that I’d rather keep them around for opossum snacks. Sure, a few of my landscaping plants sometimes take a beating, but whatever. It’s just part of living in harmony with Southwest Florida nature.
Capt. Josh Olive is a fifth-generation native Florida Cracker and a Florida Master Naturalist, and has been fascinated by all sorts of wild things and places since he was able to walk. If you have questions about living with wildlife, contact him at Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com or 941-276-9657. You can also follow him on Instagram @florida_is_wild.