I can already sense the shudders and grimaces produced by the photos on this page as I once again attempt to champion a creature that others find repellent. This week’s non-menacing but widely-feared species is known as a Jerusalem Cricket (Stenopelmatus fuscus).
I say “known as” because they aren’t true crickets, and they have no connection to Jerusalem. They are also called Potato Bugs, even though they aren’t true bugs and don’t have much association with potatoes, though they might be encountered while digging up potatoes.
It’s a bit of a mystery to me why so many people regard these benign little insects with such distaste.
“The most horrible bugs ever” said one local woman upon viewing these photos. She had been told, or mis-told by someone who didn’t know what they were talking about, that Jerusalem Crickets were “in the same family as scorpions.”
Wrong. Jerusalem Crickets are not even distantly related to scorpions. They are members of a group known as camel crickets, in the family Gryllarididae. They have no venom of any kind and have much more in common with grasshoppers than scorpions.
They are capable of delivering a pinch with their mouthparts, but in many years of picking them up and holding them I’ve never had them act aggressively toward me.
Like other members of their family, Jerusalem Crickets have humped, tan bodies and very large hind legs, or femora. The most distinguishing characteristics are the dark bands on their abdomen and their large head with obsidian-like eyes.
The oversized head, which is more pronounced in male Jerusalem Crickets, is oval and looks like polished amber. The cricket’s compound eyes are like black beads and are very noticeable against their lighter head, which contributes to the appearance that causes so many people to freak out at the sight of one.
As children growing up in Tehachapi we always called them “potato bugs” and never found them threatening. They are primarily nocturnal and tend to avoid sunlight, spending most of their time burrowed at least several inches beneath the surface. This connection with soil is reflected in the Spanish nickname for Jerusalem Crickets: Niña del la Tierra, or “Child of the Earth.”
I’ve encountered them most frequently when pulling large weeds or planting, and when I do find them, I do the same thing my Uncle Hank taught me to do when I was about 4 years old — I gently cover them back up with soil and leaf litter and let them go about their cricket business.
Jerusalem Crickets are mostly solitary, so when it comes time to mate, they have to do something to locate prospective partners. Dr. David Weissman, the world’s leading authority on Jerusalem Crickets, has found that in order to attract a mate, these unusual insects drum their abdomens very rapidly on the ground, producing a low-pitched thumping that humans can hear from 20 feet away under quiet conditions.
Males start drumming first, and if an interested female hears this, she then begins drumming longer to give the male a chance to find her. Jerusalem Crickets don’t actually have ears that they could use to hear this sound, but they have vibration sensing organs in all six of their legs that enable them to hear the courtship drumming as they are trudging around at night on the surface as they frequently do.
Unlike true crickets, Jerusalem Crickets have no wings, and the only sound they can make other than the drumming is a kind of scratchy, hissing noise produced by rubbing a hind leg against their abdomen, which only contributes to their menacing image.
I like to watch Jerusalem Crickets tromp around in duff and leaf litter, because they are quite slow and remind me of wind-up toys, plodding over and under obstacles with their robotic heads and long slender antennae.
Perhaps because of their typical habitat in damp soil, Jerusalem Crickets are apparently more impervious to cold than most insects, for they can still crawl away and hide again even after being unearthed on cold days.
They occasionally wander into homes, to the typical disgust of the human occupants. Jerusalem Crickets are also found dead in swimming pools and ponds because while they are excellent diggers, they are apparently very poor swimmers.
During the dry months, you can sometimes find cricket tracks in the dust left over from their nightly excursions, because their heavy abdomen leaves drag marks.
If you encounter one of these odd-looking but amiable creatures, just leave it alone. It actually means you no harm, and is just a cricket, after all.
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to email@example.com.