It all started a few weeks ago, when my neighbor, Don Meynig, called to ask me what these ugly grasshopper-like insects he’d been seeing were called. He said he had picked one up and it bit him – hard! It even drew blood! I told Don that I’d try to find out.
My field guide to the insects was almost worthless for identifying these guys. It had just one page for grasshoppers, crickets and cockroaches. Ugh! I didn’t like looking at that page. But I did find out that they were sometimes called long-horned grasshoppers because of their super-long antennae.
I let it go at that for a couple of days and would have forgotten all about these creatures. But then, Lori, Don Meynig’s daughter-in-law, brought over a jar with one of the grasshoppers she had caught.
This bug was much more striking than the ones I had been seeing. He was bright green with long, golden antennae arched over his back. His long legs were edged with wicked-looking spines. And his eyes were bright red! He stared malevolently at me out of the jar.
I told Lori Meynig I would try to find out what this monstrous creature was. I should have asked her how she got him into the jar. Did she pick him up with her bare hands? I think she must have. What a brave, brave woman!
For two days, I watched him inside his jar. He was beginning to grow on me. He was indeed quite a handsome bug. I figured he might be hungry, so I gave him a grass leaf and a cherry tomato cut in half. He made short work of the juicy insides of the tomato, but ignored the grass. I was beginning to wonder if he was a grasshopper; aren’t they supposed to eat grass?
I asked my fellow Master Naturalists what they knew about this creature. Word came back from Claire Barnhart’s entomologist friend, Dick Klopshinske, that the insect was not a grasshopper, but a Greater Arid-land Katydid. Internet searches turned up all sorts of information. They were “voraciously omnivorous” and would happily eat insects as well as vegetation. They were aggressive and had a special display to scare you off. They would bite to protect themselves. They sang at night. And my favorite fact: the entomologist who had studied them in the 1960s preferred the name “Red-Eyed Devil” for these katydids.
Now my interest was really piqued. I decided to take him out of the jar to photograph him. Not as brave as Lori, I shook him out of the jar onto a kitchen towel. He swiveled his head and looked at me. He walked a step or two towards me. He lifted his forewings and unfurled his turquoise-tinted hind wings. I got my camera ready. This was going to be easier than I thought. And then he hopped.
I squealed and jumped back. My two cats, which had been looking on, skittered away with claws scraping the tile floor. I thought at first they were going for the katydid, but no. They were running away from it! Half a room away they regained their feline composure and watched with great interest (but they didn’t come any closer!)
I grabbed a pair of tongs and recaptured the Red-Eyed Devil. The photos of him in the tongs didn’t do him justice, but my heart was beating too fast to let him go for more pictures. (Some naturalist I am, right?) So I placed him in a tall vase with a cloth fastened over the top. He looked out sadly.
Sorry for him, I went out to get him a bug to eat. I found a dung beetle pushing a ball of manure uphill, but I didn’t want to sacrifice him. Dung beetles have a hard enough life as it is. I caught a small moth and dropped it in the vase instead. It flew around and the devil backed away from it. I guess it wasn’t much of a meal even if he could have caught it.
I went out with a net and caught a grasshopper. I had a few misgivings. Was it cannibalism to feed a grasshopper to a katydid? The internet sources said it was normal, so I tossed the bug in.
The Red-Eyed Devil braced himself on the slick wall of the vase. Then he did a curious thing. He lifted up each one of his heart-shaped feet in turn and licked the bottoms of them. Maybe this gave him more traction. He walked toward the grasshopper and soon dispatched it.
After eating about half of his prey, the devil walked around carrying the rest of the carcass in the crooks of his left arms. He looked rather like a person (a four-armed person) carrying a large book. Maybe it was more like a large loaf of French bread, because, periodically, he would lean down and take a bite out of his leftover lunch.
That night, I heard him sing for the first time. It wasn’t much of a song, just a buzzy “skritch” repeated at one-second intervals. But he never called more than three or four times in a row. He made this sound with his wings. I read that katydids have stridulatory organs on the forewings. The right wing has a row of little ridges on its underside, and the left wing, lying under the right wing’s edge, has a single raised “scraper.” The insect rubs the scraper against the little ridges, called a “file”, to produce the sound.
He soon began stridulating his song night and day. He had become a household pet. I showed him to friends and family who came to visit. A blog on BugGuide.net described a pet devil that was hand-fed bits of fruit. Encouraged, I decided to let him out. Tammy Benson, my brave daughter-in-law, lured him out of his vase with a blueberry. He accepted the blueberry and delicately ate it, all the while wiggling his four little palpi (mouth legs). He decided to walk out on Tammy’s hand. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes and let him walk along her arm. He liked her. He never even looked like he might bite. I think all three of us were charmed.
And that’s how a Red-Eyed Devil became a “person” to me. I have since released him in the brush near our pond. I want him to call up a female and have lots of little devils. I look forward to seeing them year after year. Maybe you will too!