The Lubber Grasshopper is likely to be the biggest grasshopper you will ever see–and it certainly is the largest grasshopper in the United States. At a length of over three inches and with bright splashes of orange, yellow, red and green, Lubbers are certainly eye-catching. They are also extraordinarily bold, walking around in plain sight in open areas like lawns, parks, or sidewalks.
They have every reason to be confident–the bright colors are a warning, for Lubber Grasshoppers contain toxins in their bodies that are strong enough to kill a small bird. When larger birds or small mammals eat a Lubber, they get violently sick, throw up, and learn to never touch another one. The toxin isn’t harmful to humans, but if you pick up a Lubber, it is likely to produce a glob of brown liquid from its mouth (most people call it “tobacco spit”). This liquid is harmless, though it can make a brown stain on your skin or clothes–it is a foul-tasting anti-predator mechanism. If you persist in annoying the hopper, it will next produce a frothy foam from small holes in its thorax, accompanied by a surprisingly loud hissing sound. Once again this is harmless–it is intended to startle and scare a potential predator. Despite their large size and impressive threat displays, Lubbers cannot bite and are completely harmless to humans. (I’ve kept them as pets.) But their toxins make them virtually invulnerable to small predators. Only a bird known as the loggerhead shrike preys on them regularly–it kills the grasshopper by biting off its head, then impales the headless corpse on a tree thorn to let the sun bake out all the toxins. The leading causes of death for adult Lubbers seems to be getting run over by cars and getting stepped on by humans.
There are three species of Lubbers in the US. (The name “lubber” comes from an old English word meaning “clumsy”–in the same way that a sailor would refer to a newbie who stumbles around on a boat as a “land-lubber”.) The Horse Lubber, Taeniopoda eques, is found in Texas and Arizona and extends down into Mexico; the Plains Lubber, Brachystola magna, is found from Montana down to Mexico; and the Eastern Lubber, Romalea guttata, is found in the Southeast from North Carolina to Texas. The Florida populations used to be considered a separate species,Romalea microptera, but most authorities now class them with the guttata species.
Because of their defensive toxins, the Lubbers have no need to fly, and their wings have atrophied to mere stubs. They are accomplished jumpers, though they seem rather arbitrary about their jumps and often don’t seem to know where they will land.
The Eastern Lubber comes in three distinct color phases. There is a “light” form, which is pale green or mustard yellow with bright red, orange and yellow markings, an “intermediate” form which has the same basic pattern but with darker colors, and a “dark” form that is mostly smokey black with some orange, yellow and red markings. The dark form seems to be uncommon in Florida.
The Lubber’s lifestyle is typical for most grasshoppers. The adults mate in late summer or autumn and the female uses her long ovipositor to lay a batch of 25 or so eggs in the sandy soil, where they overwinter and hatch in early spring. Lubbers require very warm temperatures, and hatch out anywhere from early March to early June, depending on the local climate. The young grasshoppers, known as “nymphs”, are miniature copies of their parents, but are distinctively colored a solid black with bright yellow stripes. They feed on virtually any sort of vegetation and grow quickly–all the while storing toxins in their body that they extract from the plants they eat. (Although the adults are mostly solitary, it’s not uncommon to find groups of nymphs clustered together while feeding.) By mid summer, the nymphs will molt a total of five times, finally emerging with their adult coloration. The adults mate in late summer, then die over the winter.
Gardeners in Florida often panic when they see a group of enormous grasshoppers on their plants, but in reality the Lubbers don’t occur in densities large enough to do any real damage. That is likely a good thing, since Lubbers are virtually impervious to most insecticides, vulnerable only as very young nymphs.
As an aside, I have noticed the Lubbers in the Tampa Bay area have been appearing somewhat earlier than usual each spring–I now see the nymphs as early as late February (haven’t seen any yet so far this year). Since the nymphs require warm temperatures to hatch, this is an anecdotal indication that the average temperature here has indeed been rising.