Thursday, August 12, 2010

Singing insects and the people who love them

At last weekend's Midwest Native Plant Conference, we featured a good bit about "singing insects". Why? Part of our purpose with this conference is to educate and inform about the value of native plants, and there is a distinct aural dimension to native flora.

One of the most pleasing dimensions of warm summer nights is the chorus of various insects. Possibly no more conspicuous symphony of sound exists that is so widely heard, but so poorly understood by most people. Our job was to help conference attendees better recognize the interesting little musicians that make the nighttime music.

The Friday night scene outside the front doors of the Bergamo Center. This may be the world record crowd for a singing insect walk; if you know of a larger assemblage gathered to look for nighttime insects let me know. I counted about 90 people.

The gentleman above may be the best friend the chitinous wing-rubbing crowd ever had, and Wil Hershberger is a big part of the reason that so many newbies to the world of the Orthopterans were gathered in the dark on that warm Friday evening.

Wil had just delivered the Friday night keynote program, on singing insects and his sensational book The Songs of Insects, co-produced with Lang Elliott. This talk is one of the very best programs on any aspect of natural history that I have ever heard, and I've heard a lot. I will make a completely unabashed plug of the book, too, which is easily the best effort on this group of insects ever. The Songs of Insects is worth having for the incredible photography alone, but it is also packed with wonderful information about these insects, many of which you have in your yard and are singing right now. And the included CD will allow you to identify them!

So out onto the richly vegetated grounds of the Marianist Environmental Education Center we went, flashlights in hand. Our ears were filled with the wonderful sounds of many wings being rubbed together, producing a diverse symphonic chorus that we began to dissect. Common True Katydid, Greater and Lesser Anglewings, Two-spotted and Davis's Tree Crickets, Jumping Bush Crickets and many more sang all around. Ironically, the showy little beast above is an apparent non-singer, the Restless Bush Cricket. They use cues other than sound to find one another.

As our mob worked its way down to the meadow, we began to hear the strident rasps of coneheads, which are always crowd-pleasers. We sought volunteers to head into the brush to capture some of these oddities, and conference co-organizer Randy Lakes and Nina Harfmann of Nature Remains proved particularly adept at ferreting out the charismatic little beasts.

Pictured above is a Slightly Musical Conehead, and that's a fair name. The most pleasing of the insect singers are probably the crickets, which hold their wings up over their back as they fiddle, producing clear melodic tones. Coneheads emit incredibly loud extended crackles that sound like electricity snappling through an uninsulated wire.

One of their lot, the Robust Conehead, is so loud that its song pierces right through rolled up car windows as motorists zip down country lanes in the evening, and if - foolishly - kept indoors as a pet, the conehead can set off alarms and rapidly drive the homeowner completely mad.

Slightly Musical Conehead

We had a great time making sense of the sounds of the night, and even finding some of the singers so that people could meet them firsthand. Many people commented that this experience opened up a whole new dimension of nature that they hadn't thought much about.

I'm sure we'll be wandering around in the dark at next year's Midwest Native Plant Conference, and I hope that you can join us.


rebecca said...

90 people on one nature walk together?? I can't imagine how on earth you made that work - I'd expect that many people in one place to make so much noise they'd scare away the insects! In any case, though, "Slightly Musical Conehead" is a really excellent insect name.

Scott said...

I was on this walk and it was surprisingly good for the size of the crowd. We got to hear and see a bunch of different insects. So not only was this a large group it was also I think a very successful one. I think this walk is one of those ones that will stick with everyone for a long time.

nina at Nature Remains. said...

This was an awesome trek. And maybe it's the hush of darkness or the fact that all eyes fall at once on the spot of someone's flashlight, but, even with 90+ people, the group moved really well.
These nighttime excursions offer something so different from a daytime hike--and it's not just the obvious lack of light.
There's a whole 'nuther world out there.
You guys did a great job in taking us into it!

Wil said...

It was certainly an amazing evening. There were lots of interesting questions and comments after the talk and the record breaking group for the walk was awesome.
Thanks for having me and I think that the Midwest Native Plant Conference is well on it's way to become one of the premier native plant conferences in the country.