Articles by Jim Gainan

As published in the Billings Gazette

Combat devouring grasshoppers in your yard with birds, bait

Grasshoppers are not strangers to me. Growing up, I spent many hours in a car going back and forth between Billings and the northeast part of the state, visiting my grandparents in Glasgow. I remember passing the time on the seemingly endless drive by watching huge thunderstorms build in the sky. The anticipation of the eventual storm kept my mind occupied and gave me respite from my other "responsibility", which was to keep an eye out for possible antelope crossing the highway. If you're familiar with the drive, you know that antelope outnumber the human population of the area 3 to 1! That statistic might be off a bit but, as a child it seemed very accurate.

I didn't notice another predator to the windshield and grill of the car until I began to make the trek myself after I began to drive. As a fastidious 'car guy', the first stop after the long trip was to the car wash on the south side of Main Street. To my horror, I found more to clean off the windshield and grill than the typical bugs. The front end of my 1974 VW bug was covered with the biggest grasshoppers I'd ever seen. Some of them were as large as small birds.

Later, when I began gardening, I learned about the ravaging effect these critters can have on a garden. I nursed the little plants through a cool spring and through the heat of the early- and mid-summer and readied my lawn chair for an enjoyable front row seat to the harvest. Each morning I noticed that leaves were beginning to be stripped off of the plants. Before I could really identify the problem, the plant was either dead or severely damaged. The infamous grasshoppers were feasting on my garden like a bus full of football players hitting a buffet restaurant after a team victory.

Here's what I've learned about eliminating these pesky critters. The key is to focus on the younger nymphs. Nymph grasshoppers look identical to the larger adult grasshoppers, but may not have developed their wings yet. While the mature adult grasshoppers focus on reproducing and laying eggs, the younger nymphs just want to eat, eat, eat!

Grasshoppers like to lay their eggs in dry, grassy areas such as vacant lots, ditch banks and alongside roads. The voracious young nymphs will not travel far from the area where they have hatched.

As their food source is consumed or dries out, they will travel to areas with more lush vegetation - like your lawn and gardens. The young hoppers are not overly picky about what they will eat, although if given a choice, they tend to prefer the softer leaves of your garden vegetables rather than the tougher leaves of trees. One good strategy for vegetable gardens is to plant early-maturing varieties so you can get to the fruits of your labor before the grasshoppers come and take over. They also tend to avoid conifers and shrubs, but in years of heavy infestations, they may chew on tender bark.

There are a couple of different ways to control grasshoppers. The first is to make your yard bird-friendly. Plant shrubs with berries and place a couple of birdbaths in the middle of your gardens. Birds are natural predators of grasshoppers and can consume dozens of insects a day.

But, as I mentioned earlier, the other way of controlling grasshoppers is to focus on the nymphs and use their gluttonous appetite against them. There are baits on the market, such as Semaspore, that contain a food source laced in Nosema locustae, a naturally-occurring grass-hopper disease. Spread the bait in areas you've seen grasshoppers and grasshopper damage. Especially concentrate on the areas where you've seen the nymphs. The hoppers will eat the bait and become sick, eat less foliage and begin to die. Grasshoppers are also cannibalistic and will eat their dead, further spreading the disease. Semaspore is safe for people, animals and the environment. Birds or other predators that eat the grasshoppers will not get sick or die.

Heavy frosts will kill the adults, but the eggs will survive in extreme cold. Cultivating your gardens after a heavy frost will expose the eggs to predators.

Just as an aside, humans are also predators to grasshoppers. In China and Mexico, they are a delicacy served fried. Bon appetit, anyone?

Jim Gainan is VP/Shareholder of Gainan's Flower and Garden Center in Billings.