…blog by Professor Karim Vahed, Buglife England Manager. Originally written for BBC Wildlife in August 2023.
Crickets, bush-crickets and grasshoppers have been favourites of mine since early childhood. My encounter with an enormous adult female Great Green Bush-cricket (Tettigonia viridissima) while on holiday in Devon as a teenager cemented my fascination with them, a fascination that I have been lucky enough to develop as part of my career.
One question that I’m often asked is: ‘What is the difference between a cricket and a grasshopper’. Before considering the differences, it is best to start with the similarities. Technically speaking, they are both members of the same insect order: the Orthoptera. In animal classification, an order is a large grouping of similar types of species including many families, genera and species. We, for example, are in the order Primates, along with other Apes, Monkeys, Lemurs and Bushbabies.
Members of the order Orthoptera have certain things in common. These include back legs modified for jumping, ‘primitive’ biting mouthparts and slightly hardened forewings, which act as covers for the transparent, fan-like hind-wings. Most species also use sound production as part of their mating behaviour and share a life-cycle in which the newly hatched individual looks like a miniature version of the adult, but without the wings.
Crickets, however, are thought to have split from grasshoppers before the age of the dinosaurs, at least 250 million years ago; the two groups belong to very distinct branches within the order Orthoptera. Each branch contains a fascinating assortment of insects. The branch to which true grasshoppers belong also contains groundhoppers, monkey-grasshoppers, stick-grasshoppers (which are superficially stick-insect like), gaudy grasshoppers and bladder grasshoppers. The ‘cricket’ branch includes true crickets, scaly crickets, mole crickets, ant-crickets (which are adapted to live in ant nests), bush-crickets or katydids, leaf-rolling crickets and wetas. This branch includes the world’s heaviest insects: the Giant Weta (Genus: Deinacrida) of New Zealand.
Some of the main differences between crickets and grasshoppers include:
Antennae: The antennae or ‘feelers’ are much shorter and stubbier in grasshoppers and their relatives and much longer and thinner in crickets and bush-crickets, where they can often be longer than the body. The number of segments in the antennae also differ, with crickets and relatives having more than 30, while grasshoppers and relatives having fewer segments. This could in part relate to their activity periods. Many grasshoppers are day active, whereas crickets and bush-crickets tend to be more active in the evening and night (with some exceptions), so using their antennae to sense their surroundings may be more important for them. Cave crickets (Family Rhaphidophoridae) often live in perpetual darkness and have particularly impressive antennae, which are many times longer than the body.
Diet: Grasshoppers tend to be entirely vegetarian. The diet of crickets and bush-crickets, on the other hand, varies between species. Many crickets and bush-crickets are omnivorous, feeding on both plants and insects. Others, such as the Oak Bush-cricket (Meconema thalassinum) are almost entirely carnivorous. Some of the largest and most carnivorous of the bush-crickets belong to the genus Saga and are found in South-Eastern Europe. They have heavily spined fore-and mid- legs which are used to grasp their prey.
Sound production and hearing: While sound production in both groups works similarly, in that the mechanism involves a row of pegs against a ridged ‘scraper’ (a bit like running a fingernail along a comb edge), the parts of the body involved differ. Crickets and bush-crickets generally produce their calling songs by the movement of one forewing against the other, while in our UK species of grasshoppers, sound is produced by movement of a hind-leg against a forewing.
The mechanics of sound production in grasshoppers in other parts of the world, however, can be more varied. Some of the loudest grasshopper songs are made by African bladder grasshoppers (Family: Pneumoridae). These can be detected as far as 2km away by members of their own species and are produced by the male rubbing a rasp on the inner side of their hind thigh against a corresponding rasp on the sides of their hugely inflated abdomen. Songs of crickets and grasshoppers are species-specific so, just like bird-song, are very useful in helping to identify different species.
A less noticeable difference between crickets and grasshoppers is the location of their ears. In neither group are they situated anywhere near the head, unlike in vertebrates. In Crickets and bush-crickets, they are situated on the knees of the front legs, while in grasshoppers, the ears are at the top of the abdomen.
Mating: A less well-known difference between crickets and grasshoppers is in their mating positions. In crickets and bush-crickets, the female mounts on top of the male in most species, whereas in grasshoppers it is the other way round. In both groups the sperm are transferred to the female in a packet, or spermatophore. In grasshoppers, however, this is inserted internally, while in crickets and bush-crickets it remains at least partly visible on the outside of the female. In some species of bush-cricket, the spermatophore can be very large: as much as 40% of the male’s body weight and it is eaten by the female after mating.
Egg-laying: In crickets, bush-crickets and relatives, the female has a special egg-laying tube or ovipositor, which is visible as a prominent needle- or sword-like structure at the end of her body. Amongst our native species in the UK, the ovipositor is particularly prominent in the Great-Green Bush-cricket and the Long-winged Conehead (Conocephalus fuscus) where it is almost as long as the body. This is inserted into soil or vegetation, depending on the species, and eggs are generally deposited singly. In grasshoppers, on the other hand, the female has much less visible egg laying structures and the whole abdomen is stretched and extended as the female burrows her abdomen into the soil to deposit a pod of eggs, which is often surrounded by a frothy material.
UK species: In the UK, our 2 native species of true cricket, the Field Cricket (Gryllus campestris) and the Wood-cricket (Nemobius sylvestris), one species of scaly cricket Pseudomogoplistes vicentae and one species of mole cricket Gryllotalpa gryllotalpa are rare and are unlikely to be encountered, unless you know where to look. In fact, the Field Cricket and Mole Cricket are so rare that they are legally protected.
There are 10 species of native bush-crickets, 10 species of native grasshopper, and three species of groundhopper in the UK. Many of these species are easier to spot than true crickets, field crickets and mole crickets. Being warmth-loving, the number of species is greater in the south of the UK, but grasshoppers such as the Common Green Grasshopper (Omocestus viridulus), Field Grasshopper (Chorthippus brunneus) and the Meadow Grasshopper (Pseudochorthippus parallelus) are quite common and widespread, as are Bush-crickets such as the Speckled Bush-cricket (Leptophyes punctatissima), Roesel’s Bush-cricket (Roeseliana roeselii) and Long-winged Conehead. Most species are active throughout the summer and into early autumn.
Why not take a closer look and examine their similarities and differences for yourself?