What Do Grasshoppers Eat?

Grasshoppers eat a variety of green plants including clover, wheat, corn, rye, barley, cotton, oats, alfalfa, weeds, and grasses. They are also known to eat flowers and plant stems and when food becomes scarce they can eat moss, fungi, insects, and animal feces.

Like many other creatures big and small, the grasshopper is capable of eating a variety of things based on where it is and its particular dietary requirement. Like other insects, its options are not as diverse as something like a human, but they do play an important role in the world.

Understanding grasshoppers and their diets is an important endeavor because of how connected they are to humans and our different industries. This is especially important for the agricultural industry and any food-related facets of human life.

“Even the tiny grasshopper moves with a hope. Hope that its next hop will make it land on a grass which is better than the grass on which it is currently sitting.” — Akhil Prakash

Grasshoppers already have a close relationship with humans because they are apart of our history as they appear in art, literature, and religion. One of the big signs of doom in the bible is a swarm of locusts that wreaks havoc.

In contrast to such a dark and gloomy image, grasshoppers also produce music that we have always found to be interesting and a divergence from the harshness of nature. These songs vary from species to species and come from rubbing pegs on their hind legs together or rubbing their wings together.

Their more dark relationship with humans, as a harbinger of doom, probably comes from their diet and how it can become out of control to wreak havoc on human societies.

What Are Grasshoppers?

Grasshoppers are insects belonging to the suborder Caelifera, which is within the order Orthoptera that includes things like crickets. There are 18,000 kinds of grasshopper species throughout the world.

Grasshoppers are considered to be one of the oldest (and living) groups of insects considered chewing herbivores, although not all grasshoppers are herbivores. They are thought to have originated some 250 million years ago.

These insects can be found throughout the world except for areas of extreme cold. They thrive mostly in areas of vegetation, like meadows, fields, and places with lots of grass.

“If a grasshopper tries to fight a lawnmower, one may admire his courage but not his judgment.” — Robert A. Heinlein

Grasshoppers are considered to be hemimetabolous, which means that they hatch from an egg into a juvenile form called a nymph. They then undergo a series of 5 moltings until they reach their adult form. Unlike bees or flies, grasshoppers do not undergo a complete metamorphosis where the stages of development are distinctly different from each other (caterpillar vs. butterfly).

Instead, when grasshoppers molt from nymph to adult, they are basically increasing in size with some characteristic changes that include wing development.

Starting out as a nymph, the smallest form, the grasshopper will undergo 5 moltings to get to its full adult stage with all parts being developed. Image licensed under CC0. Credit: Wikipedia

Given the number of existing species of grasshoppers, there is a large range of diversity within the species. Their coloring can range from greens and olive to browns. Some may have marks of yellow or red. This diversity extends into their sizes as well as some can be as large as 4 inches.

This diversity also extends into its diet.

What Do Grasshoppers Eat?

Grasshoppers are mostly herbivores, which explains why they live in areas filled with plant life. Most herbivorous insects consume a particular species or a few species of plants as part of their diet. This specificity allows them to avoid competition but limits their access to resources.

Grasshoppers, on the other hand, are mostly generalists that feed on a large range of plants across different species, genera, and families. It has been found that when their diet is composed of a mixture of plants, Grasshoppers are healthier and reproduce more often.

Generalist grasshoppers do not all behave in the same way when it comes to acquiring food. For instance, both the green bird grasshopper and the gray bird grasshopper eat a single type of plant fully before moving onto the next. This is to avoid increased encounters with other insects or animals that could be competition or a predator.

“I miss the grasshoppers much, but suppose it is all for the best. I should become too much attached to a trotting world.” — Emily Dickinson

In contrast to both bird grasshopper species, the rainbow grasshopper constantly eats a variety of plants as it shifts from one to another before finishing the plant. It moves from one plant to another without regard for completely eating the plants. This is one of the reasons why a bunch of plants may look half-eaten with bite marks.

While most grasshoppers are generalist plant-eaters, not all of them are generalists. There are some species of grasshoppers that only eat a single plant species, like most insects. The creosote bush grasshopper, as its name suggests, only eats the creosote bush, which can be found in the deserts of North America as well as parts of Central America.

An 11,700-year-old creosote bush ring in the Mojave Desert. This is the only diet of the creosote bush grasshopper. Image licensed under CC0. Credit: Wikipedia

Another exception to the generalist grasshopper herbivore is the plains lubber grasshopper. This is a large and flightless grasshopper that can be found among desert shrubs. It is a generalist grasshopper, however, it exhibits cannibal behaviors. It has been found to be a predator that goes after other grasshoppers as well as insects, usually by jumping on them.

In situations of food scarcity, it is not uncommon to find some grasshoppers engaging in carnivorous behaviors as grasshoppers in these situations have been found eating animal feces, rotting meat, moss, and other insects.

Grasshoppers And Humans

The grasshopper’s diet can be a detriment to humans. While most grasshoppers are solitary, there are instances when they can congregate together in one location. The spur-throated grasshopper is one such species that gather in groups and travel together.

When these groups are formed, they become locust swarms that can have up to millions of individuals. This means that there are millions of mouths to feed, and being generalist plant eaters, they have lots of options as to what they can eat.

The consequence of this is that these swarms consume the plants in orchards and farms that are in their path. This can lead to major drops in food supplies, leading to things like famine.

In the United States, these swarms can cause up to $1.5 billion in damages as they consume whatever is in their path. Understanding grasshoppers becomes much more than just a need for science as it becomes a crucial part of ensuring the stability of food sources around the world.