Living Sanibel: Lubber grasshoppers and velvet ants
This large, unmistakable grasshopper is brightly colored for good reason. Like many other poisonous, venomous or toxic animals, the lubber grasshopper proudly displays its bright colors as a warning to birds, snakes and other predators that it is inedible. This is the reason why these large, flightless grasshoppers are so easy to spot. When threatened, they quickly raise their wings defiantly and bubble out a poisonous froth. The can also shunt poisons from the toxic plants they eat, making them anything but a tasty snack.
Lubbers are herbivores, dining on various leaves, berries and grasses. The immature lubber is black with yellow markings and looks very similar to an oversized cricket. The primary cause of lubber mortality does not come from the outside, but from within. Lubbers appear to be especially vulnerable to parasites that consume the grasshopper from the inside out. The loggerhead shrike, a predatory passerine bird in Florida, has learned to impale lubbers on barbed wire fences or other spikes and wait until their poisons dry out before dining on them. Look for large lubbers in the late summer and fall in dry, inland habitats.
There are more than a dozen species of other grasshoppers on Sanibel and Captiva, scores of species in Florida, and more than 11,000 species worldwide. They are commonly eaten in Mexico, Africa and China. The most notorious of this species are locusts, whose massive swarms decimate crops in the Sahal of Africa as well as throughout Central and South America.
The velvet ant is not an ant at all. It is a wasp, and only the females are wingless. A male velvet ant looks far more like a traditional wasp than does the female. In fact the two sexes can vary so much visually, that unless they are caught in the act of mating, most people would never consider them to be part of the same species. The scientific term for this is called sexual dimorphism.
The female velvet ant is covered in a heavily textures hair-like material that grows out of an extremely tough exoskeleton. The reason for this insect version of armor plating is that she is a parasitic insect. The female velvet ant lays her egg on the mature larva of both bees and wasps, and because she is constantly invading hornet and bees nests, she can be stung repeatedly in her attempts to propagate. When her eggs hatch the larvae kills and eats the host pupa.
There are more than 5,000 species of this flightless wasp worldwide, with more than 400 in North America alone. They are not common on the islands, but can be spotted crossing shell roads or along the bike paths where they look like oversized red and black ants. Velvet ants are not aggressive, but will deliver a nasty sting if provoked. They are taken by birds, lizards and snakes, but because their sting is quite nasty, not as often as more defenseless insects.
This is an excerpt from Living Sanibel – A Nature Guide to Sanibel & Captiva Islands by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.