Often I walk through the tall grasses and wildflowers of our prairie plot, and as I do I imagine I'm a boy again, tramping through a field in the country near my home. It's summer, then and now, and the day is long and hot and dry. Thistles are going to seed, every breeze carrying away silky threads that bear the forerunners of next year's crop.
A meadowlark scolds but doesn't sing, nor do other birds sing in the field. The birds have raised their broods of this season and are mostly silent. Thunderheads tower overhead and around the horizon are dark-bellied clouds of scattered thunderstorms. It's all I remember from those hikes I took through the fields when I was young.
It's as I remember, except for the grasshoppers. As a boy, I flushed a blizzard of 'hoppers at every step as I walked through a field. They launched in every direction, their wings making clattering, clacking noises. Some flew toward me, landed on me. They would cling briefly to my shirt or pants, or to the skin of my hands and arms, then take off again.
But where are the grasshoppers now? As I've walked through our prairie plot this summer, I have seen just a handful. They have been as rare as Savannah sparrows.
Those myriads of grasshoppers I flushed as a boy were of many different kinds. There were green ones, brown ones and yellow ones. There were big ones, medium-sized ones and little ones. Most of the little ones didn't fly. They couldn't. They didn't have wings, though some had knobby things where their wings ought to be.
In an entomology class in college, I encountered an enormous grasshopper, inches long, much bigger than any I'd ever seen before. Each student got one. They were dead, preserved in formaldehyde.
We had to study those giant grasshoppers, learn the external parts of their bodies, then dissect them and learn their internal anatomy.
We learned that grasshoppers are members of a group of insects called Orthoptera. Other insects of the group are cockroaches, walking sticks, praying mantises, leaf insects, mole crickets, cave crickets, field crickets and katydids.
Orthopterans, as the professor called them, have incomplete metamorphosis. That means they don't go through the larvae and pupal stages that many insects do. When grasshoppers hatch they look like adults except they're smaller and don't have wings. The little, wingless 'hoppers I saw as a boy were young ones, though I didn't know it then.
Grasshoppers have short lives. They hatch from eggs in spring. Then they eat and grow. When they become adults, the males sing. At least it's called singing, although the sounds are made by rubbing a hind leg on a wing, or rubbing legs together. The females lay eggs, usually in holes they make in the ground or in rotting wood, and the males fertilize those eggs. Then as the days get shorter and the temperature falls, they die.
In that class in college, I learned that grasshoppers are locusts and that the plagues of locusts that devoured crops were hordes of grasshoppers. I learned that the icky brown stuff we called tobacco juice that grasshoppers spit on us when we caught them, was, as the professor said, the brown exodus of their digested food.
I learned more about grasshoppers in that class than I ever wanted to know. The professor even told us that grasshoppers are edible, though he didn't offer to eat one to show us. They can be prepared for eating, he said, by boiling or drying, then grinding and making them into cakes.
During World War II, soldiers were told that grasshoppers would be a survival food.
Grasshoppers wouldn't be a survival food now. Not in our prairie plot, nor in many other fields I've visited. They've nearly disappeared.
I wonder why.
NEIL CASE is a retired naturalist with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. He lives near Albion and writes a weekly nature column.