They may well have been aliens from another planet for a French family visiting Everglades National Park: almost frighteningly huge bright orange and yellow grasshoppers all but taking over Anhinga Trail and other spots in the park this summer.
The buzzing of their wings and persistent hissing drowned out the typical noises of the Everglades marsh. Their googly insect eyes stared at visitors from every railing and trail sign along the park’s most popular tourist stop.
Up close, they may look like creatures from a horror movie but they also mesmerized the Eono family’s two kids, who were set on counting every single one.
``It really gives me the creeps to be walking here,’’ said mom Karine Eono, gasping as she tried to avoid stepping on the bugs covering the walkway last week.``I’ve never seen anything like this.’’
In Brittany, where she lives, grasshoppers are small and green, and are hardly ever seen. But this is South Florida, home of bizarre and showy creatures, and it’s high Eastern lubber season.
The lubber grasshopper is making its annual appearance across South Florida, with perhaps their largest — at least most visible — concentration in the sprawling national park.
They’ve actually been around since spring, but smaller and less noticeable except to aggravated home gardeners. Right now, in the heat of summer, lubbers are at their developmental peak, and they are huge: Females, which need space to carry more than 100 eggs each, can grow to about four inches long and fill a child’s hand. It’s also common to see them mating.
Lubbers are not a danger to humans or pets but they are voracious eaters. They climb into flower beds, munch away at herb gardens and hop from bush to bush by the side of the road, eating every species of plant they can get their jaws on. These grasshoppers aren’t picky when it comes to food, but they do have a preference for crinum lilies and other toxic flowering plants.
``The lubbers are not a serious threat to agriculture because growers usually get rid of them early on, but they can do quite a bit of damage to landscaping,’’ said William Kern, associate professor of entomology and nematology at the University of Florida.
The Romalea microptera is among the largest species of grasshopper in North America and it’s native to the Southeastern United States. Lubbers are found in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and parts of North Carolina, as well as Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and parts of Texas.
Adults are always colorful, although the pattern varies depending on the region. Young grasshoppers, called nymphs, are shiny black with either a yellow or orange streak on the back. Unlike other grasshopper species which are winged and agile, the lubber can’t fly. They walk and hop around, and are not very graceful jumpers. Because of that limited mobility, the insects don’t travel far.
Between late February and March, baby lubbers emerge from clusters of eggs buried about two inches into the soil and almost immediately start attacking plants in large swarms. They band together at that age, probably a mechanism to boost their chances of survival, Kern said. Many young lubbers are eaten by spiders, birds and other insects. They can also be killed with pesticides when they are still small.
Fast-forward a few months, though, and the lubber becomes an almost invincible warrior in shining bright — and toxic — armor: the lubber’s colorful exoskeleton serves as a warning that says`I’m poisonous’ to predators. Both males and females also make a buzzing noise by rubbing the forewing against the hindwing when they sense danger. They also sometimes hiss and produce a foul-smelling froth that’s secreted from their thorax and can spray a toxin for a distance of about 6 inches, according to a lubber fact sheet by professors John Capinera and Clay Sherer, from the University of Florida. Lubbers store toxins in their bodies from the poisonous plants they eat.
If chemical warfare doesn’t dissuade more audacious predators, the lubber grasshopper has a more mundane defense mechanism: it will lift up its head, pump up the thorax, spread its small hindwings to show a bright pink lining and assume a fighting position as if it were saying ,`You talkin’ to me?’
The exploding adult population each year reflects a lack of predators, Kern said. Some birds have learned they can eat dead lubbers splattered on roads. One of the few natural predators of live lubbers is the shrike, a small bird that can decapitate the grasshoppers with its beak or impale them on thorns or barbed-wire fences. The birds have learned to wait for the toxins to fade before eating a lubber’s insides, according to Kern.
The population is patchy but widespread: in Miami-Dade, they can now be seen munching away at gardens and backyards in Palmetto Bay and Homestead, and even in not-so-suburban Coral Gables and North Miami. Lubbers are more numerous in less populated areas in and around the Everglades, and usually don’t reach adulthood in crop-producing regions because growers have learned to kill them as soon as the eggs hatch in Spring.
``They will either just kill them with pesticides when they are young or shake them off from the plants into a bucket of soapy water so they will drown,’’ said Adrian Hunsberger, entomologist and urban horticulture agent at UF’s IFAS Extension office in Homestead. ``If growers and gardeners are vigilant, they can break the lubbers’ cycle in a couple of generations by not allowing any babies to mature.’’
In the Everglades, the pinelands and hammocks provide the perfect habitat for the lubbers to thrive in: high and dry enough for females to lay their eggs, with plenty of vegetation for young nymphs to feed on and grow.
Around the park’s Homestead entrance last week, hundreds of lubbers were splattered on the asphalt, their crushed orange armors gleaming in the sunlight. Inside the park, they hopped on benches to the amusement of tourists on a ranger-led guided tour at Royal Palm visitor center. Children squealed in amazement and lost count of the hundreds of bugs around.
Elizabeth Tonsmeire, a visitor from Raleigh, held two lubbers in her hand and explained to her two-year-old son Henry that they weren’t mean: ``Look how beautiful they are,’’ she told him.
As scary as their numbers may be, these strange bugs aren’t damaging to the Everglades’ natural balance as nonnative species like the tiny Redbay ambrosia beetle is. This beetle is believed to have been imported in wooden shipping materials from Asia in the early 2000s and by around 2010 it had mad its way to Everglades National Park. Ambrosia beetles cultivate a fungus in tubes they dig under the bark of host trees. The fungus serves as food for the beetles and kills a variety of trees, including the native swamp bay.
``The lubbers are part of the ecosystem and have been around as long as the Everglades has,’’ said Ryan Hess, a ranger at Everglades National Park. ``It’s not like it’s a plague of locusts or anything like that. There is no risk they will eat all the plants or target one specific species in the Everglades.’’
When they show up in your grade:
1. Catch them while they are young: spray with pesticide as soon as you see black swarms of baby lubbers in Spring. Or shake them off into a bucket of soapy water. The soap is used to break the surface of the water so the little critters will sink and drown.
2. If you find adult lubbers in your yard, pick them off by hand and drown them. You can also nip them with garden shears or other pruning tool. Adult lubbers don’t congregate like the young, so you’ll need to look in every single plant.
3. Even after eliminating adults, chances are an entire new generation of eggs is buried in your garden. Don’t despair. Watch out for nymphs next spring and get rid of them. If you are vigilant for a couple of years, you’ll get rid of lubbers for good.