Calling All Katydids: Are You Still in Our Backyards?
By Bill Lawyer
We local residents may not live in the countryside, but we have enough woodland, shrubs, and the like to support a healthy population of rural insects and other arthropods. Katydids are one group of insects that doesn’t get much press, because they are fairly harmless, and they make that ‘cute’ katydid call.
When thinking about insects, most people focus on the annoying varieties, such as the spiders that build webs connecting my deck to the lilac from which I invariably end up getting spider web all over my head and shoulders. And then there are the biting flies that seem nastier than usual this summer. I notice them most when I’m standing and talking to other dog walkers in the early morning at Rye Town Park. On a more serious note, there are the West Nile Virus-bearing mosquitoes, and Lyme disease-bearing ticks.
Those of us who are trying to grow vegetable gardens, along with the big- time factory farmers, know everything that they can about the many insects that have a negative impact on corn, wheat, soybeans, and other crops.
All these negative things can lead us to utter some harsh and discouraging words about insects, whether home on the range or in your backyard. But we need to take a larger view. For example, invertebrates make up 97 percent of all animals on earth. Arthropods make up a million species of these, and of these, 90 percent are insects.
Clearly insects must be doing something right, as there are a lot of them. Despite the current state of understanding on the part of research scientists, there’s still a lot we don’t understand.
We do understand that there are many species of insects that are not harmful or even annoying. One of the most interesting of these are the 6,000-plus species of katydids that can be found anywhere in the world, except Antarctica. There are 200 species in the United States alone.
Like fireflies and cicadas, katydids have evolved various ways of communicating with each other, leading up to mating, laying eggs, and going through the stages of growth until they reach adulthood, and then it starts all over again. In the United States, most of the species of katydids are fairly similar, given the relative similarity of habitats. They’re generally green, about the size of grasshoppers, only with much longer antennae. They have delicate features — quite different from their rasping call of “katydid, katydid, katydid.” Katydids are nocturnal, so as to be harder to find by their would-be predators. They stay in shrubs and trees, and during the daytime their green and brownish colors and leaf-like shape make them equally difficult to find.
Some of widest diversity of katydid species can be found in the earth’s tropical rainforest environments. The noises of the thousands of species of katydids and other insect species make it hard for males and females to find each other. That’s why some species have become much larger and have developed various colors and shapes as well. Some tropical species are hot pink, for example.
But there’s still much to learn. One thing I’ve noted while taking my dog out for his evening walk is that there’s quite a variation in when and how they do their mating call. Some nights it’s the regular “katy-did”, but it is often combined with a “katy didn’t call”. About a week ago I began to hear the entire “choir” singing just “katy.” In the last few days I’ve not been hearing any calls at all. Have they finished their mating season already?
It’s a mystery to me, right in my backyard.