Dr Strangebug or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Lubbers

04/18/2014 1:29 PM

04/18/2014 1:38 PM

They’re everywhere now. In the beds in front of the house. In the bushes near the pool, where they sometimes end up on a shoulder that brushes too close. In the bromeliads, hell, occasionally sitting atop the aloe, a good vantage point from which to spy something else in my yard to destroy.

The lubbers are back, but the battle is over. The day is theirs. I have surrendered.

If you live in South Florida and have a yard, you may have experienced a similar yearly infestation of Romalea microptera, or eastern lubber grasshopper. They look like aliens, and they feast like kings. They dine on a variety of species, craving flowering plants full of toxins like crinum lilies and amaryllis that few self-respecting life forms would eat (kind of like corn dogs).

Lubbers can render your prized vegetable garden bereft of bounty, and they’re a pest to the citrus industry, wreaking havoc mainly on very young trees. Most predators won’t touch them because they taste terrible (kind of like corn dogs). Unlike cockroaches, they are impervious to most pesticides and almost impossible to kill unless you want to get your hands dirty.

My hands are staying clean. No more chopping with hedge clippers and leaving the carcasses around as a warning to other grasshoppers (there is no evidence the lubbers are intimidated by this carnage). No more slaughter, despite the traveling insect who hopped on a visitor’s back and came close to causing a massive pileup on I-95 when he was discovered halfway to Miami Beach.

I have no stomach for the battle anymore, but is there a downside to letting the lubbers run wild? Are they truly a menace? Or is Ken Setzer, writer and editor for Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, onto something when he says, “They suffer from bad public relations”?

Of course he also says: “I think they’re beautiful,” so take that into consideration.

But in a way, lubbers — which go through five molting stages called instars — are kind of pretty. The nymphs are black with a yellow racing stripe (though they’re not fast, according to the University of Florida IFAS Extension: the name “lubber” comes from the way they hop around clumsily). The eggs usually hatch in February in South Florida; females lay eggs in the summer; and everything dies down again during the late fall and early winter months.

Right now, the grasshoppers are still black, for the most part. Soon they’ll turn yellow, almost orange, which is even prettier until you realize it’s a warning that says to birds: I’m poison. Eat me at your own peril. Then they go green.

Still, lubbers aren’t much of a danger, Setzer says.

“They don’t bite, though they can spit on you, though I’ve never seen it,” he says. “They can exude a toxic foam from their abdomens that’s foul-tasting. I don’t know who tasted it. They can hiss to scare predators. But mosquitoes are far more dangerous. Besides defoliation of what probably would grow back, lubbers are harmless. But people get picky about having their plants look perfect.”

Adrian Hunsberger, urban horticulture agent and entomologist at the IFAS Extension office in Homestead, hears a lot about lubbers in her line of work.

“The thing is, people get alarmed when they’re hatching because there are so many,” she says. “But they don’t necessarily kill every plant. It depends on what you have in your yard. ... And people make the mistake of waiting until they’re adults to think about controlling them. By then, it’s already too late. When they go from black to yellow, the females have started laying their eggs. If you want to get rid of them, don’t wait until they’re adults.”

The IFAS Extension report on the insects urges that “it’s best to take the battle to them,” and Hunsberger, who lives in Homestead, heeds the call. She used to go after lubbers with needle-nose pliers and snip them in half (a more elegant twist on my hedge clipper assaults). Her husband didn’t like bug guts on his pliers, though, so she switched to smashing them with bricks, a time-consuming and gruesome act.

Gathering up nymphs and dumping them into a bucket of soapy water is a simple way to get rid of them, although Hunsberger cautions that you may have to train your next-door neighbors to follow your lead: Lubbers can hop from yard to yard. She also says the insects are fond of yards with irrigation systems that keep the ground nice and moist for their eggs. Overwatering may also attract them.

Setzer also suggests tilling the soil in beds you think might contain eggs and keeping weeds and high grasses cut back because trimmed yards don’t offer enough protection.

“One more reason to do yard work,” he quips.

Both specialists agree that using pesticides to combat the grasshoppers is a bad idea and often pointless.

“There’s a balance in nature,” Hunsberger says. “Everything plays a role. We’re trying to manipulate the environment. We put in our landscapes, and we don’t want to tolerate everything that goes with that. It’s fine to keep them managed, but pesticides are not the best solution.”

And the truth is, short of preserving your vegetable garden — which is going to fry in the hot summer sun anyway — there’s no real reason to panic over the grasshoppers. My nonviolent approach, Setzer says, is totally reasonable.

“Lubbers are native,” Setzer says. “They’re meant to be here. I think outdoor cats do worse — they kill native birds and lizards. Grasshoppers aren’t going around doing that.”

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