As autumn turns to winter one starts seeing less insects in the countryside. Last Sunday while taking pictures at Selmun the only insects I saw in any number were grasshoppers. Several jumped into the large spaces between the stones of an old wall and walked slowly on the white limestone dust into the inner part of the wall until they disappeared from view.
Grasshoppers overwinter as eggs, nymphs or adults so the ones I was observing could be looking for a suitable place to lay eggs or to hibernate.
Grasshoppers are familiar insects with short antennae and large hind legs. Sometimes the hind legs have short projections that are rubbed against the lower edges of the forewing to make a noise during the day. The legs are hard and can exert a lot of force and this gave rise to the idea in Malta that grasshoppers are armed with a knife which they use for self defense.
It is estimated that there are about 11,000 species of grasshopper in the world. Most live in tropical areas especially in rain forests. About 25 species are found in the Maltese islands. Some species are very common and you will see them jumping away from you wherever you walk in the countryside. Most are greyish brown and blend perfectly well with their surroundings.
Some species have brightly coloured hind wings which are normally kept hidden under the forewings. They are uncovered only when they are flying. Te bright colours have an important function.
When danger approaches these insects rely on their excellent camouflage for protection but if a predator approaches too closely they fly away startling their enemy with their bright colour for long enough to be able to fly away. They do not fly very far away but as soon as they land they disappear again.
Grasshoppers eat mostly vegetation and some species can become pests.
They have an incomplete metamorphoses as when they hatch the young look like small wingless adults which grow progressively larger as they break out of one exoskeleton after the other until they reach adulthood.
In Africa and in other parts of the world where they occur in large numbers, grasshoppers can be an important source of proteins, minerals and vitamins especially in times of food shortage.
This article was pubished in The Times on 8.12.10