Mormon Crickets: All You Need to Know for a Bug-Free Summer

Mormon crickets are a fascinating species of flightless, ground-dwelling insects native to the western United States. As members of the katydid family (Tettigoniidae), these crickets might not seem like a significant concern, but their feeding habits and tendency to congregate in large numbers can have severe consequences on both natural and agricultural ecosystems.

These insects primarily feed on native herbaceous perennials (forbs), grasses, shrubs, and cultivated forage crops. When Mormon crickets gather in large numbers, the damage they inflict on natural and agricultural ecosystems becomes more profound, reducing feed for grazing wildlife and livestock, leading to soil erosion, poor water quality, and nutrient depletion in soils.

Mormon Cricket Fundamentals

Anabrus Simplex

Mormon crickets, scientifically known as Anabrus simplex, are a type of insect found in North America. They gained the name “Mormon” due to their significant impact on the crops of Mormon settlers in the mid-1800s.

Classification and Appearance

Mormon crickets are not true crickets but belong to the shield-backed katydid family. Their appearance differs from typical crickets in the following ways:

  • Fat, grasshopper-like body
  • Smooth, shiny exoskeleton in various colors and patterns
  • Long antennae
  • Short wings, rendering them flightless
Feature True Cricket Mormon Cricket
Wings Long, functional Short, non-functional
Antennae length Short Long
Exoskeleton appearance Rough Smooth
Family classification Gryllidae (True crickets) Tettigoniidae (katydids)

Insect Behavior and Lifecycle

Mormon crickets exhibit unique behavior and lifecycle characteristics. Some key points include:

  • Entomologists classify them as insects with incomplete metamorphosis.
  • Their life cycle consists of three stages: eggs, nymphs, and adults.
  • Instars, or nymph stages, are shorter than in typical crickets.

Mormon crickets are known for their extensive migrations, forming large bands that travel great distances. These insects are also known for male Mormon crickets’ distinctive chirping, resembling that of true crickets.

In summary, Mormon crickets are a unique type of shield-backed katydid that have a significant historical impact and differ in appearance and lifecycle characteristics from true crickets.

Habitat and Distribution

Geographical Range

Mormon crickets are native to the western United States, with their distribution ranging from the prairie provinces and British Columbia in Canada to the northern parts of Arizona and New Mexico in the south. They can also be found in the western parts of Minnesota, Missouri, and Montana, as well as eastern Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, and western parts of Washington and California. For instance, large populations of Mormon crickets are common in states like Utah and Nevada.

Preferred Habitats

These flightless insects prefer habitats that provide abundant food sources, such as native herbaceous perennials (forbs), grasses, and shrubs. They are often found on:

  • Rangeland
  • Cultivated forage crops
  • Sagebrush
  • Saltbush areas

This habitat choice allows them to not only find food but also to bask in the sun on the west side of bushes during the late afternoon or migrate in clusters of 25 to 50 nymphs seeking warmth together. In these preferred habitats, they can maximize their chances of survival and reproduction.

Impact on Agriculture and Ecosystems

Mormon Crickets and Crops

Mormon crickets are a type of katydid that can cause significant damage to crops. They are known to:

  • Attack various crops such as rice, corn, and forage plants.
  • Consume and destroy vegetation.

When present in large numbers, they can cause substantial harm to agricultural fields, making it difficult for farmers to secure their livelihoods. For example, one source states that during their lifespan, an average Mormon cricket can consume enough vegetation to impact crop yields.

Effects on Rangelands

Mormon crickets also have significant effects on rangelands, which are essential for livestock grazing and wildlife habitat. Some of the impacts include:

  • Consuming grasses, forbs, and shrubs, leaving less feed for grazing animals like cattle or deer.
  • Contributing to soil erosion, nutrient depletion, and poor water quality due to overgrazing.

Table: Comparison of impacts on crops and rangelands

Category Mormon Cricket Impacts
Crops Damage to rice, corn, and forage plants
Rangelands Overgrazing, soil erosion, and water issues

In times of drought, the effects may be more pronounced, as both crops and rangeland vegetation are already stressed. Additionally, Mormon crickets are capable of laying eggs that can survive harsh conditions, potentially leading to more significant infestations during future years.

By understanding these impacts, it is essential for those managing agricultural lands and rangelands to be aware of and prepared to deal with potential Mormon cricket infestations, ensuring sustainable production and a balanced ecosystem.

Control and Management Strategies

Pesticides and Chemical Treatments

Chemical treatments are often used during Mormon cricket infestations. One commonly used pesticide is Carbaryl, which is applied to soil where the crickets reside. Another option is Diflubenzuron, a growth regulator used in the suppression program by the Idaho State Department of Agriculture.

Pros and Cons of Chemical Treatment:

  • Carbaryl

    • Pros: Effective in killing crickets
    • Cons: Potential harm to the environment
  • Diflubenzuron

    • Pros: Disrupts cricket growth and development
    • Cons: May not be as fast-acting as Carbaryl

Biological and Alternative Control Methods

Other methods to manage Mormon crickets include biological controls, like the introduction of natural predators such as wild birds, poultry, and the black wasp. Additionally, slick barriers, when placed vertically, can prevent crickets from accessing areas where they are not wanted.

Creating a suitable habitat for cricket predators can be beneficial, such as:

  • Planting shrubs and grasses to provide shelter for birds
  • Encouraging natural predation by maintaining diverse ecosystems

Furthermore, researchers are investigating the use of cannibalistic behavior among Mormon crickets as another control method.

Cultural and Historical Significance

The Miracle of the Gulls

In 1848, Mormon settlers in the Great Salt Lake Basin in Utah experienced a significant threat to their crops due to a massive influx of Mormon crickets. These flightless insects invaded their fields, resulting in a loss of food sources. However, seagulls came to the rescue and started feasting on these crickets, eventually saving the settlers’ crops.

Over time, the event became known as the “Miracle of the Gulls,” and the seagull was later chosen as Utah’s state bird to honor their part in this historical event.

Mormon Cricket Plagues in History

Mormon crickets have been known to cause damage to crops and rangeland forage throughout history. They are primarily found in the western United States, where they can stretch across vast areas, covering up to a quarter of a mile in some cases.

These crickets are particularly abundant during June when warming temperatures provide optimal conditions for their growth. Consequently, their presence has become a concern for private landowners, the federal government, and those interested in western public land preservation.

Various measures have been taken to manage and control Mormon cricket populations, sometimes even involving the U.S. District Court and the National Environmental Policy Act to implement policies and legislation for their management.

  • Pros of Mormon crickets: They serve as a source of food for various animals, including fish in Lodore Canyon.
  • Cons of Mormon crickets: When present in large numbers, they can devastate crops, rangeland, and ecosystems, driving the need for control measures.
Characteristics Seagulls (Miracle of the Gulls) Mormon Crickets (Plagues in History)
Role Savior Pest
Impact on Settlement Positive Negative
Population Control Natural Predation Human Intervention

Conservation and Environmental Concerns

Potential Threats and Management Challenges

Mormon crickets pose risks to rangeland and crop health during their outbreaks, leading to potential environmental concerns. For example, their migrations can cause widespread damage to forage plants and cultivated crops on their path 1.

Managing Mormon cricket infestations can be challenging due to their unpredictable nature and widespread impacts. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers support to suppress their populations when outbreaks become a threat 2.

Role of Mormon Cricket in Ecosystems

Despite the potential threat they pose, Mormon crickets are an important part of ecosystems. They serve as a food source for many predators, like wild birds and poultry 3. In addition to their function in the food chain, Mormon crickets contribute to natural processes. For example, their coloration helps with camouflage, allowing them to blend into the environment.

When managing Mormon cricket infestations, it’s essential to consider the species’ role in ecosystems and try to minimize potential ecological damages.

Collaborations and Research Efforts

Researchers like Jake Bodart are collaborating on studying Mormon crickets during outbreaks 4. Their work helps build risk assessment models for predicting outbreaks, further understanding the species, and minimizing ecological damages while controlling infestations.

Feature Pro Con
Collaboration Enhanced knowledge None
Risk assessment models Improved prediction Requires more research

Overall, addressing the conservation and environmental concerns of Mormon crickets requires a balance between mitigating their impacts and recognizing their importance within ecosystems.

Footnotes

  1. Mormon Cricket Fact Sheet

  2. Protecting U.S. Rangeland from Grasshoppers and Mormon Crickets

  3. Identification and Management of Mormon Crickets

  4. USDA ARS Mormon Crickets Research

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Female Mormon Cricket

 

SUMMER EXPLORING
hello bugman!
last summer, i went hiking in Fairmont, BC (in canada). we drove up behind some very cool hoodoos, but along the way we came across this REALLY creepy looking bug. i took several pictures of it while it was digging or poking its stinger into the ground. this image was the last one, after it retracted it, and then we ran away. i was wondering what type of bug it was that i was so fearful of.
Thanks!
hoodoo explorer

Dear Hoodoo Explorer,
This is a female Mormon Cricket in the genus Anabrus, one of the Long Horned Katydids. She was in the process of laying eggs.

Update from David Gracer (06/12/2006)
www.slshrimp.com
The Mormon Cricket got its name from the colorful tale of a plague on the newly-arrived Mormons who were threatened with devastation, but saved by a vast flock of seagulls that swept down and ate up the bugs. These insects were an important staple in the diets of many Indian groups. DeFoliart has catalogued the many ways that the insects were gathered and prepared; most of the accounts were written by white observers of Indian culture in the 1800s. I haven’t tried them yet, but I’ve been told repeatedly that the ones that have eaten the farmer’s alfalfa taste MUCH better than the ones that have eaten sage. This is one of the species that, at least in some years, could easily be mass-harvested or cultivated for either human consumption or, perhaps more realistically, as animal feed.

Letter 2 – Female Mormon Cricket

 

Subject:  What’s this crazy bug?
Geographic location of the bug:  Cle Elum, Washington 98922
August 25, 2017 3:57 pm
Saw this bug yesterday. The long thing at the tail end of the bug is like a spike which the bug forces into the ground… it then wiggles, lifts the spike and then moves forward a few inches and does it again. Almost as if it is laying eggs at a depth of an inch or so into the ground. I have video of this process if you want it.
How you want your letter signed:  Scott

Female Mormon Cricket

Dear Scott,
Your speculation about your observations is correct.  This is a female Mormon Cricket, which we verified thanks to this BugGuide image, and she was using her spiky ovipositor to lay eggs in the ground.  According to BugGuide:  “Common name refers to invasion of agricultural lands farmed by Mormon settlers in the Great Salt Lake Basin in the 19th century, especially an outbreak in 1848.”  BugGuide also states:  “Eggs may lay dormant in soil for a number of years, and then many may hatch in an area in the same season when conditions are ideal. Eggs hatch in spring when soil becomes warm enough, with adults often present by as early as late May (depending upon local conditions), and usually most abundant as adults in June and July. Most are generally gone by sometime in August or September, but some may live until the first freezes of autumn. If swarming occurs, it is usually most prominent early in the season, made up of nymphs and/or young adults. Later in the season (usually by August) swarms tend to break up, and older adults tend to become more sedentary. However, timing may vary a great deal from place to place and year to year, depending upon weather conditions.”  BugGuide further explains:  “Though flightless, this species can form migratory swarms or ‘bands’ that travel on foot, eating almost anything (both plant and sometimes small animal) in their paths, and have been significantly destructive to rangeland and crops at times. Swarming occurs primarily in the Wyoming Basin, Colorado Plateaus, Great Basin, and Columbia Plateau. In the Sierras, Rockies, and other higher mountain areas, and on the northern Great Plains, individuals average smaller, are usually non-migratory, and coloring is commonly of lighter colors (often tan or green). Individuals in bands are most commonly of a deep brown, often nearly black color.”

 

Letter 3 – Female Mormon Cricket

 

Subject:  Is this a cricket or what???
Geographic location of the bug:  South Central Idaho (Ketchum/Sun Valley)
Your letter to the bugman:  Out for a hike on Proctor Mtn. and stepped over this big guy/gal. Never seen anything like this before…must’ve been about 3” long…
How you want your letter signed:  Jo

Female Mormon Cricket

Dear Jo,
This is a female Mormon Cricket and a few days ago we published a nice image of a male Mormon Cricket, part of a migratory swarm in Nevada.  Here is a BugGuide image.  According to BugGuide:  “Though flightless, this species can form migratory swarms or ‘bands’ that travel on foot, eating almost anything (both plant and sometimes small animal) in their paths, and have been significantly destructive to rangeland and crops at times. Swarming occurs primarily in the Wyoming Basin, Colorado Plateaus, Great Basin, and Columbia Plateau. In the Sierras, Rockies, and other higher mountain areas, and on the northern Great Plains, individuals average smaller, are usually non-migratory, and coloring is commonly of lighter colors (often tan or green). Individuals in bands are most commonly of a deep brown, often nearly black color.”  BugGuide also has this historical reference:  “Common name refers to invasion of agricultural lands farmed by Mormon settlers in the Great Salt Lake Basin in the 19th century, especially an outbreak in 1848 (Hartley, 2011).”  Mormon Crickets are actually flightless Shield-Backed Katydids rather than true Crickets.

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

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