MONTHLY CRITTERS SERIES: Jerusalem Crickets, a harmless (freaky) giant
Editor’s note: “Critters” is a monthly series featuring insects, spiders, snakes and other freaky/fun creatures unique to the Grand Valley. You know, the kinds of critters you aim to keep your distance from but love to learn about. Have a critter you want discussed? Email email@example.com.
Jogging with my dog near the Ridges neighborhood a few months back, I saw a gigantic, red and yellow striped bug crawling on the sidewalk. From a distance, it looked as big as my fist.
I muttered something along the lines of “Holy Moly!” and pulled my dog to a stop. Approaching slowly, I was able to get quite close to it, and gingerly snapped a few photos. This mutant insect was probably 2 inches long, close to 1 inch wide at its thickest; it had a big red head, big eyes, no wings, spider-like legs, and a big yellow-and-black-striped body. It walked placidly along, ignoring me as I towered over it with an iPhone.
Upon returning home, I immediately emailed Bob Hammon, who works as our local Colorado State University Extension western Colorado entomology expert, asking what could this insect be. Of course I attached a photo, though it was a little blurry. Sure enough, he wrote back in no time, with a definitive answer and a bug fact sheet to prove it.
“It is a Jerusalem cricket,” Hammon said, noting that these bugs are more common than we think. “They live underground most of the time and are nocturnal, so they don’t get seen that often. When I display my collection, they are the most commented-on insect. A lot of people have seen and remember them.”
Jerusalem crickets also “make good pets” and “eat dog food,” he added. “Someone mentioned it many years ago and I just keep repeating it because they are so unusual. I have an empty terrarium and would keep one if I had the opportunity.”
Hammon thinks the dog food might work as it’s high in protein; these insects are omnivorous and “not overly picky,” meaning they’ll scavenge and eat pretty much anything — plants and roots, other insects, as well as dead matter (plants and animals) and even each other.
“The female frequently kills and devours the male after mating,” he said, noting this information came from an old insect book from the 1920s (“The Insects of Western North America” by Essig).
Other fun facts: This cricket is more commonly known around the valley as “child of the earth” and “potato bug.” Many Free Press readers called it by those names when sharing sighting stories about the insect on Facebook. People also call them “skull head” and “old-bald-headed man,” a CSU extension fact sheet said, because the crickets are known for having a “somewhat human-like head.”
I personally think the head looks like a cross between an alien and a cow, especially since the large eyes appear somewhat docile.
Because Jerusalem crickets live predominantly underground, Hammon said the front legs are “modified for burrowing in soil.” Much like its relatives, these strange crickets make a “drumming noise,” though it’s probably not very loud and produces vibrations in the soil. Hammon’s old book noted the noise to sound like sandpaper rubbing together.
Despite its bright coloring and striping (not to mention inaccurate old wives tales), Jerusalem crickets are not poisonous and they’re harmless to people. Hammon did note that, if handled, the strong mandibles on the cricket would likely break the skin.
Jerusalem crickets are thought to live in “nearly all states west of the Rockies,” Hammon said. In Colorado, they live “in the western counties bordering Utah.”
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