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Jumpin’ jehosophat! That’s one crazy looking bug

by Amy Roby

My very first encounter with a Jerusalem cricket came at the age of 9 after my dad uncovered one while working in the yard. He thought it would be a good idea to capture the otherworldly insect in a glass jar and set it on top of the washing machine in our garage.

He then invited me to “take a look” at what he’d found and I wandered out to the garage, unaware of what I was about to behold. I recall staring in transfixed horror at the bug’s beady, black eyes, set on either side of a large, oval head that connected to its thick, ringed body. There was a sheen to it, almost as though it were coated in oily residue, and its hind legs bent upward at a sharp angle. The creature sat still within the confines of the jar, and I shuddered as I took in its menacing appearance.

This meeting left me deeply unsettled; I couldn’t quite come to terms with the fact that an insect so mortifying lived in the same yard where I often ran barefoot. I tucked the disturbing visual into a deep corner of my mind and did my best to forget about it.

Though I’ve not seen one in years, this memory snapped right back into focus last week during a late-afternoon hike with my family. It was the day before Halloween and as we trekked along the Eagle Ridge trail overlooking the Carson Valley, I glanced down just as a Jerusalem cricket scuttled across the dirt in front of me.

I let out a yelp and when my sons leaned down to get a closer look at the rust-colored specimen, I relayed this story from my childhood to them. Though smaller than the one I first observed, this critter was as unsightly as I remembered and I was unnerved for the remainder of our hike.

I stopped by the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension on Waterloo Lane to learn more about this curious creature, and they provided me with a couple of terrific resources: a detailed Jerusalem cricket pamphlet from the UNR Cooperative Extension along with an information sheet from the UC-Davis Bohart Museum of Entomology.

A member of the Stenopelmatidae insect family, Jerusalem crickets (Stenopelmatus fuscus) are known by several other names that include: potato bug, Child of the Earth (Niña de la Tierra), Old Bald-Headed Man (Woh-tzi-Neh), and stone cricket.

In spite of their frightful appearance, Jerusalem crickets are considered harmless to humans, and their consumption of soil-dwelling pests and larvae can be beneficial in the garden. The majority of their life is spent burrowing underground, utilizing their sturdy legs and powerful mandibles to dig and move the dirt. They feed on plant tubers and roots, other insects, and decaying matter. When above ground, they seek out places that are moist and dark, a strategy that helps them avoid becoming a meal for predators such as owls, hawks, skunks, and coyotes.

In North America, Jerusalem crickets are found west of the Rockies. Adults are 1-3 inches long, and females occasionally eat the male after mating.

Some people enjoy keeping these insects as pets. Although not poisonous, a Jerusalem cricket’s strong jaws can deliver a sharp bite if they’re provoked. That’s fair warning for me; I’m happy to leave them to their business and continue to maintain an appropriate social distance.

Contact Amy Roby at ranchosroundup@hotmail.com.