Tom Ross: Even magpies turn up their noses at foul bugs |

Tom Ross: Even magpies turn up their noses at foul bugs

Cannibal katydids give crickets a bad name, make grasshoppers welcome pests

When the first little grasshopper appeared in my plastic beer cup Saturday night, I gave him swimming lessons.

We were sitting on the space blanket on Headwall grooving to the soulful music of Sonia Dada and thinking life couldn’t get much better in spite of the thousands of insects patrolling the grass. When I first caught sight of the little fella in my cold cup of Red Stripe Blonde Ale, he was struggling in the foam and it was clear he needed some pointers on his backstroke. By convincing the grasshopper to lay his head as far back in the beer as possible, I was able to flatten his stroke out. I also taught him to bend his arms at the elbows beneath the surface. The result was that he quickly learned to generate more power. I’m quite certain I took at least three seconds off his personal best in the 25-meter sprint. Several more grasshoppers took the plunge in my Red Stripe during the concert, and while not all of them had the aptitude for swimming that the first hopper did, all of them left with skills that will assure them a lifetime of fitness.

I wasn’t always this considerate of grasshoppers in my beer, but after last weekend, I know there are worse things. Worse things such as big, disgusting Mormon crickets.

Before we go any further, let me make it clear that I don’t approve of calling these horrible insects by the name “Mormon crickets.” The bugs attempted to wipe out the crops of pioneer Mormons in 1848, and only a band of determined seagulls saved the crops by devouring the marauders. There should be such a thing as Mormon seagulls in the West, but not Mormon crickets. Besides, the bugs aren’t even true crickets — they’re actually the Darth Vader of katydids.

We had our first ever Un-Mormon cricket encounter in extreme western Moffat County this month. I had been warned by a friend but didn’t take his outlandish story seriously. How could there ever be enough big black bugs in one place to make an entire stretch of highway look like it was squirming? I should have listened to my friend.

Driving north from the visitors’ center at the Colorado entrance to Dinosaur National Monument, we crested a rise and there in front of us was a swatch of crawling, hopping insect life about 75 yards wide. The asphalt highway was unnaturally black.

I switched off the air conditioning and rolled down the windows only to be greeted by the snap, crackle, pop of Darth Vader-katydid exoskeletons exploding.

I felt like I was an actor in the film version of a Stephen King novel. Studying the clots of bugs on the highway in front of us, we quickly realized that the bugs had an unusually morbid curiosity in their fallen comrades. Upon closer inspection, we realized the survivors were feasting on the carcasses of bugs that had fallen victim to vehicles that had gone before us.

This despicable tendency toward cannibalism only increased the carnage on the highway — where one bug had died, six more clustered around making inviting targets.

Shortly, we noticed an unnatural smell in the air a little like a sour dishrag. It was the aroma of Mormon cricket innards caking onto our mud flaps. This fragrance may have explained why we did not see flocks of birds feasting on the millions of crickets. Seagulls may have saved the pioneers, but the ravens and magpies of Dinosaur would have nothing to do with the vulnerable protein on the hoof represented by the black swarm. Pedaling my bike home from the concert this weekend, I decided I’d be happy to entertain a grasshopper doing the backstroke in my fermented malt swimming pool every night of the week if it meant I never had to set eyes on a 2-inch-long cannibal katydid ever again.

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