Lubber grasshoppers got their common name from the British navy's term for a clumsy landsman on a Man O' War. With its robust body and spindly legs, the eastern lubber grasshopper (Romalea microptera) certainly lives up to its name. Its size (6 to 8 cm) and its coloration makes it the most distinctive of all southeastern grasshoppers. A young nymph is black with yellow, orange or red "racing stripes" along its thorax. As they near adulthood, the color changes to a dull yellow or orange with varying degrees of black spots, although some adults can be entirely black.
Female lubbers begin laying eggs during the summer months. After mating, the female digs out a small hole around 5 cm deep. She lays up to 50 eggs imbedded in a foamy froth. Each female will lay from one to three egg masses. The eggs quietly spend the fall and winter in their underground nests and hatch beginning in March. Once the nymphs emerge from the soil, they begin feeding on suitable foliage, usually clustered together for protection. The nymphs go through five molts before reaching adulthood. There's only one generation per year.
The bright coloration of lubber grasshoppers serves to warn potential predators. A fat juicy insect like the lubber grasshopper is a tempting tidbit for a hungry bird, but lubbers contain a number of toxins. In most cases, an inexperienced bird feeding on a lubber will become ill. In some cases, a young bird gorging on young lubbers has died from the toxic effects. Even small mammals like possums and skunks have been observed vomiting violently after munching down on lubbers.
If the coloration isn't enough to warn off a hungry predator, lubbers have more defenses. When disturbed, the grasshopper will secrete a foam from its thoracic region. This irritant foam is usually accompanied by a loud hiss used to startle a potential predator. Lubbers, like most grasshoppers, can also regurgitate partially digested plant material called "tobacco spit." This spit is combined with semi-toxic compounds from its crop.
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Despite their large size, lubbers tend to eat less and cause correspondingly less damage than its smaller relatives. Also, unlike their relatives, lubbers don't usually occur in large numbers -- at least, numbers large enough to cause significant damage.
Nevertheless, controls may be necessary on occasion.
Grasshoppers in general are more easily controlled when young; that means this time of year. Remember, when they're young, they group together to feed. You can wipe out an entire generation with a quick spritz of pesticide or just by brushing them all into a bucket of soapy water. As they grow older and larger, control becomes more difficult.
Their one saving grace is that, even as adults, lubber grasshoppers can't fly. They are best controlled by picking them off plants one by one by hand. Be careful though -- remember their irritating spray.
If handling the grasshoppers isn't to your taste, there are a number of chemicals that will work against lubbers. These include pesticides containing active ingredients such as bifinthrin, cyfluthrin, esfenvalerate, lambda-cyhalothrin or permethrin. Abundance of lubbers can also be regulated through management of their food. Short vegetation isn't as attractive to grasshoppers and will limit the amount of food for the nymphs. If you deprive them of sufficient food they will leave or die.
Tim Lockley, a specialist in entomology, is retired from a 30-year career as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For answers to individual questions, please send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Tim Lockley, c/o Sun Herald, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi MS 39535.