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Illustration by Elizabeth DeBoer, © 1997
Summer nights can be noisy. Insects, a few birds, thunder, the neighbors' yowling cats, all contribute to a decibel level that might disturb your sleep. One of the most common, persistent and loudest of the noisemakers is an insect, the cricket.
Hundreds of species of crickets have been described in North America. However, there seems to be disagreement among entomologists about just how many species deserve recognition. At any rate, the most abundant one in our area is the black field cricket (Gryllus species). These insects are about an inch long, with strong back legs and long antennae. They are widely distributed in the United States. Although they have wings, they rarely fly, but are good jumpers.
They are found in crop fields, pastures, lawns, roadsides, woods and houses, although crickets inside buildings are most apt to be another similar and common species, the European house cricket.
A cricket's life begins as one of up to 300 eggs laid by a female in soil during late summer and fall. Eggs winter underground and hatch out in spring. Adult crickets hibernate in late fall, but seldom survive the winter. A year-old cricket is a rarity.
Crickets feed on lots of things – plant tissues, dead insects, seeds, leather, paper, and old cloth, especially if the cloth is stained by food or perspiration. They are capable of doing considerable damage in storage places.
Adult crickets spend their days in a shallow burrow beneath a stone, clod of dirt or a tuft of plants. They are most active after dark, and that is when males begin their nightly serenading of potential mates. Their familiar chirps also can be heard occasionally in the daytime. Females don't sing.
A male cricket has a heavy vein with a rough surface at the front of each wing. The upper side of a wing is used as a scraper and produces sound when it is rubbed across the rough vein of the other wing, just as a bow is drawn across a violin. This performance occurs with both wings elevated so that wing membranes can act as sounding boards. The pitch of their chirps is slightly higher than the highest octave on a piano. Air temperature influences chirping rates; the warmer the night, the faster they chirp.
Folklore has it that a pet cricket will ward off evil spirits, bring good luck or both. For those who wish to test this possibility, crickets are easy to keep in captivity. Put a layer of sand in a fruit jar, add a small bottle cap for water, a cricket, and cover the jar opening with mosquito netting. Feed bits of lettuce, dry oatmeal, melon or chicken bone and your cricket should be happy. Perhaps you will be, too.
Reprinted with permission from NewsLeaf, newsletter of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum.
Jim Hale is a biologist, former researcher and was the first director of DNR's Endangered Resources program. He lives in Madison.