The Tiniest Grasshopper

I noticed movement along the trail and discovered a group of tiny black grasshoppers, all under a half-inch long. They had bright red markings and preferred crawling to hopping. A new-to-me species! Or so I thought.

Lubberhead Grasshopper nymph (Romalea guttata, aka Romalea microptera)

I couldn’t wait to research my find on the internet, only to learn that I’ve seen this species many times before. These were baby Lubber Grasshoppers—giant grasshoppers found throughout Florida. Females grow to be 2 to 3.5 inches long (50-70 mm). Males are a bit smaller at 1.5 to 2 inches (43-55 mm). Adult coloration is a mixture of yellow, orange, red, and black.

Lubber Grasshopper adult (Romalea guttata, aka Romalea microptera)

During the summer, each Lubber female lays between 100 and 150 eggs. She deposits them beneath two inches of soil, where they overwinter. When the weather warms in the spring, the eggs hatch.

Both nymphs and adults live in groups. They eat a variety of plants, but prefer leaves and flowers. They are particularly fond of Amaryllis plants, which are poisonous to vertebrates.

In fact, their diet is their second line of defense. Plant toxins are stored in a special gland, and can be secreted in a foul-smelling foam or ejected in a spray that carries 6 inches (15 cm).

So what is their first line of defense? All Lubbers—even cute babies—independently produce their own poisons, which cause vomiting in birds and lizards. Invertebrate predators such as spiders and centipedes seem less affected, however, and toads may also consume baby Lubbers. However, toads are ground-dwellers who hunt at night, while Lubber nymphs prefer daylight hours. As nightfall approaches, the babies climb the stalks and branches of plants and hide until daylight.

Although most birds soon learn to avoid Lubber Grasshoppers, the Loggerhead Shrike feeds on the adults. The shrike impales its prey on barbed wire and leaves it untouched for a day or two, which allows some of the toxins to dissipate. When it returns to its prey, it eats the Lubber’s head and abdomen, but avoids the thorax, where most of the toxins are found.

Loggerhead Shrike

The lubber also defends itself by “spitting tobacco,” or regurgitating a brown, smelly liquid that consists of partially digested food. Adults may also perform an intimidating display, spreading their wings and hissing loudly.

In spite of this, Lubbers are gentle giants. Even their name means big and clumsy. They do not bite, cannot fly, crawl slowly, and are usually slow to react. They are gentle with the host plants, taking only a nibble from one leaf before moving on to another. They rarely kill the plants they feed on and their saliva actually stimulates plant growth. That being said, these grasshoppers find flowers irresistible, so gardens may be a bit less showy with resident Lubbers.

So which will I choose? Showy blooms or stunning being?

I’ll gladly share the yard (and trail) with this docile and interesting native species. After all, I partake of a hearty salad every day, so why would I deny the same to another.

Adult Lubber Grasshopper photo by sam11378 at Pixabay.
Loggerhead Shrike photo by Terry Ross at Wikimedia Commons.
Loggerhead Grasshopper nymph (c) Carol Fullerton-Samsel 2021.
UF/IFAS University of Florida, Featured Creatures.
Delvalle, Terry Brite, Get rid of eastern grasshoppers when they’re young, Florida Times Union, Garden Help, May 16, 2009.
The Eastern Lubber Grasshopper: Hard to Miss, But Only an Occasional Pest, Entomology Today, March 22, 2018.
Thomas, Bob, Southeastern Lubber Grasshopper, Loyola University, New Orleans.
Whitman, Douglas W., Vincent, Shawn, Large size as an antipredator defense in an insect, BioOne, December 2008.
Schowalter, T D, Biology and Management of the Eastern Lubber Grasshopper (Orthoptera: Acrididae), Journal of Integrated Pest Management, Oxford Academic, March 16, 2018.

Published by cafsamsel

Carol Fullerton-Samsel is a nearly-native Floridian who lives with her husband of 25 years and three rescue animals. She has a passion for day-hiking and nature, and also enjoys writing. Be sure to visit the TenPaths YouTube channel, which is still in its infancy.

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