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Do Loud Insects Bug You?

This Roesel's Bush Katydid makes a song like an electrical short: high pitched, buzzing and irregular. Photo by Jeff Tome

“Zitch, Zitch, Zitch”

The sound echoed through the darkness lurking outside of the window. “What is that?! I can’t sleep!!” My son came downstairs, grousing about the insect racket outside.

My first thoughts were that this was the sound of a healthy, diverse habitat. It was the racket of insects finding love in the fall and a sign that things were going right in the yard that we have been transforming into native plant habitat.

What I said was “That’s a katydid. They can get annoyingly loud.”

This is the time of year that the night is filled with the odd creaks, trills and scratchy noises made by insects. Katydids often make a scratchy, three note “Kate – E – Did” or long scratchy rasps that sound mechanical. Crickets create a chirp that is easily recognized as the background sound of the night, but there are many more crickets that trill in musical glory. Grasshoppers often create scratchy buzzes, and cicadas create long pulsating trills that echo from the treetops.

Insects make music in a variety of ways, often involving legs and wings. Crickets have wings that, when scratched together, create chirps or trills. Male grasshoppers rub a leg on a wing to make their song, as do katydids.

They do this as a mating song to attract the girls, and only the males chirp and buzz. This is true of many noisy insects: it is the boys that are keeping people up at night, even if they are named “Katie did.”

Perhaps the loudest of these is the cicada. Cicadas fly to the treetops and create long trills that seem to carry for miles. These insects have a unique drum on their abdomen that helps create their loud noise. “To understand how the cicada makes its sound, you would have to imagine pulling your ribs to the point of buckling collapse, releasing them and then repeating that cycle,” according to researcher Derke Hughes in an interview with Science Daily. They do this 300 to 400 times a second!

Can these sounds get annoying? Yes, but they are often important indicators of how the environment is doing. There are 11,000 species of grasshoppers and crickets worldwide. How many of those live in my backyard? I have no idea, so I bought a guide to identifying insects by their song.

Unfortunately, they all sound the same to me, but there are those who can identify dozens of grasshoppers at a time just by listening. Most of us look at a grasshopper and are proud to say “That’s a grasshopper.” The horrible follow up question to that is “What kind of grasshopper is it?” Truthfully, that is something I can rarely, if ever, answer, but I find the question invaluable.

It shows me how little we know as a society about what is out there and what we can affect with our actions. While the loud insects may keep my son awake at night, they also provide a valuable source of food to birds and other animals by turning plants into hopping protein packets.

Open your windows tonight and just listen. Count how many different kinds of scritches, chirps and trills there are in the insect chorus outside. You might be surprised.

Jeff Tome is a Senior Naturalist and Exhibits Coordinator at the Audubon Community Nature Center, a former CWC board director and a longtime CWC volunteer.

The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, call 664-2166 or visit chautauquawatershed.org or facebook.com/chautauquawatershed.

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