Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Hitchhiker crickets

For about a couple of weeks, my six year old daughter has been telling me about the crickets in her school playground. Crickets? surely they would be grasshoppers, I said dismissively. I shouldn't have doubted her identification abilities, as she confidently pointed at oak bush crickets when presented with photos in a field guide, and my husband and son also confirmed it. I was most intrigued, as bush crickets are rare north of the Humber. Last week I spent an embarrassing amount of time searching for the mystery crickets while the kids played after school, while other parents I know looked at me as if I was going nuts. 'I put in on the tree this morning', my daughter would said, 'I've seen four, no... five' I wondered if the kids throwing sticks to get at the conkers was also dislodging the crickets from the chestnut tree at play time. I searched and searched, and, although I did find some Field Grasshoppers, Chorthippus brunneus, nearby there was no sign of the crickets, so frustrating!
  Today, at school pick up time, she told me she had rescued one from a puddle under the chestnut tree. I searched and initially found none, but finally, I founf a live female and a very squished male on the ground, hoorray! Both were collected and taken home, and to my surprise they turned to be the Southern Oak Bush Cricket, Meconema medidionale, distinguished from the related Oak Bush Cricket by its stumpy wings and larger male cerci. Oak Bush Crickets are nocturnal and live in trees canopies, so they are thought to be under recorded, although they are attracted to light, so they turn up inside houses in the summer. Instead of singing by stridulating with their wings like other crickets do, males attract females by drumming with their rear legs on the substrate, and this sound can be audible up to 1 m away. They are predatory crickets, and feed on small insects like aphids and leaf-miners (including those of Cameraria ohridella, the Horse Chestnut leaf miner). Despite their name, they occur in many tree and bush species and are a late species, with adults found from mid August up to the first frosts.
 Since the 1960s, the Southern Oak Bush cricket expanded its distribution range from its original homeland in Italy throughout large areas of Northern Europe, and is now also found in North America. It was recorded in the UK for the first time in the autumn of 2001, and since then, it has spread north up to Nottinghamshire. Given its flightlessness, it is surprising how fast they are expanding. A study systematically searching for this species in the recently colonised Slovak and Czech Republics found that they are found mainly in urban habitats like parks or campsites, often with localised populations near car parks and main roads, suggesting that they might be dispersed passively by vehicles, especially trucks and caravans. They are, unexpectedly, often found on vehicles.
 The fact that several individuals are present suggests that the crickets have been around for a while in the school grounds. Would a teacher returning from a visit down south might be responsible from the introduction of this cricket species in Hull?
The squished male
Side view of the female
UPDATE 8/10/2014
We released the female on the chestnut tree. Although she had lost a leg, she was quite capable of jumping, and hid under a shrivelled leaf. I found a freshly dead male in the same spot, quite intact. Here he is. Look how much longer his antennae are compared to the female.


More information
British Orthoptera & Allied insects page. Here.

Grabenweger, G., Kehrli, P., Schlick‐Steiner, B., Steiner, F., Stolz, M., & Bacher, S. (2005). Predator complex of the horse chestnut leafminer Cameraria ohridella: identification and impact assessment. Journal of Applied Entomology, 129: 353-362.

Vlk, R., Balvín, O., Krištín, A., Marhoul, P., & Hrúz, V. (2012). Distribution of the Southern Oak Bush-cricket Meconema meridionale (Orthoptera, Tettigoniidae) in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Folia Oecologica 39(2) 155-165.

Liana, A., & Michalcewicz, J. (2014). Meconema Meridionale Costa, 1860 (Orthoptera: Tettigonioidea: Meconematidae)–The First Record In Poland. Polish Journal of Entomology, 83(3), 181-188.

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