Ramblings on the local food chain

by Rachel Creager Ireland

We have digger wasps here. They are fascinating to watch. Adults eat flower nectar, and can easily be seen at purple flowers. They get their name from the females’ penchant for digging a little hole, leaving a mound of dirt beside it. You might see her come up pushing the dirt behind her (she comes back end first), then go back in for more. Eventually she’ll decide that the hole is right, then go get a prey insect and sting it, which paralyzes but does not kill. She brings the prey back, puts it in the hole, and lays her eggs with it, to leave them a nice meal for when they hatch in the spring. She’ll be gone by then.

My eldest daughter is sad to know that the digger wasp’s prey is in this case a katydid. The species we have here looks more like a grasshopper than some, but green. My favorite book on insects is Volume Eight of the Nature Library, published in 1905, and written by Leland O. Howard. Howard calls katydids the “long-horned grasshoppers,” as opposed to the short-horned ones which everyone calls grasshoppers to this day. I don’t know if that terminology is current, but we call this particular one a grasshopper in our house, which is relevant because they are regular visitors, who often stay a while. If they come in the house, I catch them and put them in a jar furnished with a rock and some dirt, and we feed them scraps of vegetables and fruit for up to a couple months. They are pretty, and when mature, the male sings all night and sometimes in the day too. Their favorite food is lettuce. Rowan seems to have an affinity for grasshoppers (more on that another day).

Right now we have two tiny short-horns, which Rowan caught in her hands after numerous tries. I wasn’t helping her because I didn’t really want to commit to having grasshoppers again, but we have such an abundance in the yard that she had lots to practice on. Then I found a long-horn in the house. For some reason they tend to wander in, and they’re easy to catch, so voila, three grasshoppers, and we’re not sure they like each other. One may have disappeared, though, it’s hard to say for sure.

Today we saw a snake in the yard, a yellow-bellied racer. It was a very pretty, smooth gray, medium-sized one. It was right by the compost, and I noticed its neck was slightly bulging with a recent meal. We watched the bulge work its way slowly down the length of the snake’s body, until snake was off in the tall wee- I mean wildflowers, where the grasshoppers have concentrated themselves since the grass finally got mowed. It actually faked us out, starting to go through the fence. When we got to the other side of the fence, though, there was no sign of it. Back in the yard, we saw it in the vegetable bed. But it sure can disappear into the weeds. When I was thinking about writing this, I thought I might put in a picture of some weeds and grass with the caption, “Do you see the snake in this picture? No, because there isn’t one, but if there were, you wouldn’t see it anyway.”

So the kids were getting ready for bed, and I spotted yet another of those longhorns in their room. Can’t imagine where they’re coming in from, but when I offered to catch it and put it in the habitat, Rowan got really upset. “No more grasshoppers! I don’t want any more than we already have!” So I had to take it outside. But . . . I usually put spiders in the flower planters, but of course I don’t want grasshoppers there, devouring the flowers I paid good money for. That’s where those digger wasps are anyway, and it seems kind of cruel to take the creature outside and feed it to somebody else. Then I thought maybe I’d put it in the tall weeds, but remembered the snake, who needs to eat too, but that seemed just as bad. Finally I took it off the other way, in the peonies, where the only predators I’ve seen this year were ladybugs, and the peonies are done being pretty for this year, so grasshopper can eat all s/he likes. Everybody happy?