Grasshoppers are predominantly herbivores, though some will eat other insects and faeces when given a chance. Grass is a significant component of most grasshopper diets, though many will also eat flowers or other vegetation.
What do grasshoppers eat?
There are around 10,000 species of grasshopper around the world. They are primarily herbivores, eating plant matter. Certain species do eat meat, but largely only in an opportunistic way, such as if they find already dead insects, or consume sap-sucking insects such as aphids along with the plant they’re munching on. This additional source of protein can be highly beneficial, giving them a boost of energy.
The types of plant matter grasshoppers eat can be pretty varied. Most species will eat the leaves of plants, though some also eat other parts of the plants. Although some species heavily prefer grasses, often making them a serious agricultural pest, some eat forbs. Forbs are the flowering plants that are not sedges, grasses or rushes.
As well as living plant matter, some species will eat dead plants and leaf litter. Other food sources can be meat or waste such as faeces. Additional sources of food can come from mushrooms, though this appears to be rare.
How do grasshoppers eat?
Like most insects, grasshoppers have mandibles to help them bite into and tear their food into chunks. Different species can have different methods of eating, with some biting the plant off at ground level, while others climb part way up the leaf and cut it in half, then gnawing on the pieces they’ve bitten off.
Once they’ve torn their food into chunks, it sent down into the crop, where it will be further broken down. Food then moves to the foregut and finally hindgut before coming out of the other end and fertilising the ground below them.
The vast majority of grasshoppers eat a wide variety of different plants. Research has shown that the grasshoppers that eat from other plants can be healthier and grow into stronger adults. However, some species are very specialised, such as the Rosemary grasshopper, which is found in Florida and eats wild rosemary. The nymphs’ colours are very well camouflaged to the rosemary leaves, painted in bright greens and yellows.
The common green grasshopper lives throughout Europe into Mongolia. Its colours are green and brown, meaning it is well camouflage in the wet grassland habitat in which it lives. It eats common grasses such as cock’s foot, sweet vernal and ryegrass. Although these species can be found in commercial pasture the common green grasshopper has little impact on the economics of farming as it does not eat arable grains and isn’t found in dense enough populations to effect grazing.
The American bird grasshopper does eat various wild grasses, such as bermudagrass and nutgrass; however, what they are reviled for is their enjoyment of the leaves of citrus trees. In Florida, they can decimate citrus groves, as they munch their way through the tasty vegetation. Because they are good fliers it’s easy for them to move between different areas, visiting one crop after another. As well as citrus fruit, they enjoy other important commercial crops such as peanuts and cotton.
The plains lubber grasshopper is a large grasshopper that goes through various shades of green and brown as it grows from a nymph to an adult. Like many lubbers, it doesn’t bother to fly, mostly preferring to walk and hop. Although it eats some grasses and other insects, this species has a distinct preference for forbs, particularly the sunflower. Found on the dry prairies in the centre of America, it also eats other common plants such as hoary vervain and annual sowthistle.
The green fool grasshopper has a long thin face and is green all over. It has a marked preference for forbs, mainly focusing on plants within the borage family. It has banded hind wings but is observed to be a clumsy flier, which might be the reason for its name.
Some grasshoppers have been observed eating other animal’s faeces. Though it may seem unpleasant to us, there can be many advantages to eating poop. Firstly the plant matter is pre-digested, meaning there are lots of readily available nutrients. Additionally, there can be moisture, something many insects struggle to get enough, particularly in dry environments.
No grasshoppers eat arthropods exclusively. They are not designed for hunting other insects, simply take advantage of what is already there. Most will have a main diet of plants but add meat to their diet when possible.
Locusts are particularly famous for their decimation of crops, from the renowned plague in the Bible to modern-day swarms many miles wide. Locusts only become a problem when high densities or low food availability causes serotonin levels to rise in their bodies, and they go from being reasonably harmless solitary animals to a wall of hungry mouths ripping through the landscape.
While they are most known for eating through valuable crops, they have been observed to turn carnivore whenever needed. As well as hoovering up unfortunate insects that are in their way, they also become terrifying cannibals when other resources fail.
Grasshoppers start life as an egg, which hatches into a nymph or hopper. A young grasshopper’s only goal is to eat as much as possible so it can become a healthy adult. While most grasshoppers have no impact on humans, some species can appear in such large number that they can decimate crops and even reach plague proportions. It’s for this reason that grasshoppers can have a very negative reputation. But it’s worth remembering that they are a vital food source for many other animals, an important part of the foodweb.