What’s the difference between grasshoppers, locusts and crickets, and are they a blight on our environment, or part of the solution?
Some Thailand insects look like they’ve stepped straight out of the imagination of some hollywood director, or in this case, a Pixar or Disney movie. This little guy, sitting on my hat, is Chondracris rosea brunneri, aka known as the citrus locust, bird grasshopper and ตั๊กแตนขาแดงใหญ่ (Big red-legged locust) in Thai.
I found him on the steps of my house, so carefully picked him up in order that he didn’t get stepped on.
The bird grasshopper family is interesting, as the appearance of many species changes depending on the density of the population.
Locust swarms are hugely damaging to crops in parts of Africa and Asia. Around the time I took this photograph in Phuket, Southern Thailand, swarms of yellow-spined bamboo locusts (Ceracris kiangsu) were ravaging rice fields in Northern Laos. Yellow-spined bamboo locusts have gone through a population explosion in recent years. Spreading rapidly in Southern China where they devastate commercial bamboo plantations, swarms were first detected in neighbouring Laos in 2014, with the number of areas in both Laos, and now Vietnam, increasing every year. Although they do occur in Northern Thailand, the climate is considered too warm and humid for them to thrive, so Issan farmers in north-east Thailand are hopeful the swarms will not spread into their rice fields.
Is it a grasshopper or a locust?
The term grasshopper and locust is sometimes used interchangeably. So what exactly is the difference? Locusts are not, as is commonly believed, a particular species (or group of species) of insect. Instead they are a phase of certain species of grasshopper belonging to the Acrididae family. for most of their lives they are solitary creatures, but at certain times they congregate in vast numbers. These aggregations normally follow periods of rapid vegetation growth. The grasshoppers in turn, produce large numbers of offspring, but offspring with a difference. The early stages of these are wingless (at this stage called ‘hoppers’) but the adult stage is winged. These winged adults often look quite different, their colour and even their shape differing from the solitary phase adults; they also have a higher metabolic rate. As the number of winged adults grow and aggregate, they begin to take flight in vast swarms. At this stage they become ‘locusts’.
The problems they cause for agriculture are due to the combined effects of a large increase in numbers combined with those individuals coming together to form dense swarms that can cause devastation where they land. For example, in the late 1960s a plague of desert locusts afflicted parts of Africa and S.E. Asia. It’s been estimated that during that time numbers increased from two to 30 billion, but far worse for some, that 30 billion congregated within much smaller areas than the earlier two billion.
Locusts are not just pests, they are food
The third group often confused here are crickets. Fundamentally crickets are a related, but distinct group of insects to grasshoppers. Key differences include how they produce their distinctive singing (or stridulation, to give the technical term). Grasshoppers achieve this by rubbing their large hind legs against their wings, while crickets sing by rubbing their wings together.
Grasshoppers (Tak Ga Tan, ตั๊กแตน) and crickets ( Jing-ree, จิ้งหรีด) are very popular as food in Thailand, especially in the north. It’s a win-win, as they can be a pest in rice fields, but fried with soy sauce they are nutritious and go great with a cold beer. They are also a really good source of protein; containing more protein per unit weight than either chicken or beef. While we westerners may baulk at the idea of eating insects, they’ve always been part of the staple diet in much of Africa and Asia (and fundamentally it’s no different to eating prawns). Thailand is a World leader when it comes to cricket farming, producing dried insects, cricket powder and even cricket pasta! As our awareness of environmental problems grow, and the adverse impacts of livestock farming, so interest in insect-sourced protein is also growing.
Farming crickets produces a small fraction of the methane that cattle farming does. Methane from livestock is believed to be a significant contributor to global warming; methane being 28 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. As Sir David Attenborough pointed out in his recent documentary A life of our Planet, one of the biggest threats facing wildlife and indeed entire ecosystems is the loss of natural habitat. We also know that around 77% the World’s agricultural land is used for the raising of livestock, or the raising of food crops for livestock, yet this only produces around 18% of our total food calories and 37% of total protein (source: Our World in data). This is leading many to suggest that substituting cricket and grasshopper (along with silkworm, ants and other insects) for beef, pork and chicken may be part of the solution.
So what do they taste like? Well, despite their similar appearance, grasshoppers and crickets taste quite different. Grasshoppers are quite salty and slightly bitter, while crickets are more buttery and nutty (and for me, more of an acquired taste). Fried grasshopper anyone?
Last little bit of trivia. Walt Disney’s Jiminy Cricket was actually drawn by Ward Kimball. A minor character in Carlo Collodi’s original novel (Il Grillo Parlante, the talking cricket) Disney developed the character to be the conscience of Pinocchio in the 1940s movie.