|In the nymph stage, lubber grasshoppers have soft black skin with yellow and red stripes|
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel May 23, 2011)
Every evening, my husband goes hunting. He doesn't carry a gun or a quiver of arrows. His weapon is a one-gallon bucket filled with soapy water. The prey he single-mindedly stalks is grasshoppers — specifically, the infamous lubber grasshopper. Over the past few weeks, my gentle, sweet husband has caused the demise of several hundred of these plant-eating monsters.
Landlubbers must really like our property because each spring, baby lubbers emerge to parade across the ground. Throughout Florida, Georgia and other Southern states, nymphs barely a half-inch long hatch out of eggs laid by adult females who cleverly deposited their eggs close to sources of leafy vegetation at the end of the previous summer.
Because each fertile female can produce more than 100 eggs, it's not surprising that springtime heralds a population explosion. With no predators except loggerhead shrikes (and gardeners like my husband), the land is littered with these hungry nibblers.
Unfortunately, lubbers don't stay little for long. Young grasshoppers go through five stages of development, called instars. By the middle of summer, they have expanded to four inches, thanks to a voracious appetite for tender greens. Although lubbers will eat most vegetation, they are especially fond of rain lilies, amaryllis and other bulb plants. Their exoskeleton, which is initially soft, black and striped with bands of yellow and red, turns hard at maturity. As they mature, their color also changes from black to a dull yellow with spots of red and black.
Most grasshoppers can fly, but lubbers cannot. Their wings are not large enough to support the weight of these fast-growing invertebrates. However, being unable to fly isn't a handicap. They are adept at hopping and crawling, and their bright color warns potential predators to stay away. When that's not a sufficient deterrent, they also have the ability to hiss, spit and spray foul-smelling foam. The entire package yields one formidable, forbidding insect.
Despite its put-offish appearance and unpleasant defenses, I don't think my husband would have taken on lubbers had they stuck to ornamentals. They didn't. Their fatal mistake was to target Ralph's broccoli plants.
At this point, I should mention that broccoli is my husband's nirvana. If he had to choose one vegetable to eat, it would be no contest. Broccoli would be the hands-down winner.
This year, with more time to garden than he has had in a long while, his broccoli plants were a wonder to behold. Apparently, the lubbers thought so too. Every evening, several dozen settled on the uppermost leaves of the broccoli plants to nibble their way to sleep.
Seeing so many of the destructive insects in such a docile and vulnerable state was more than my husband could tolerate. It triggered his attack mode.
"They're so easy to catch," he said as he walked up and down the row brushing handfuls of bugs into the suds. "You should try it."
I declined his invitation but tagged along to watch the show. I was already familiar with lubber hunting.
Before my husband's broccoli-incited warfare, I had spent years waging my own battle with these plant-eating bugs. Their ability to chew their way through some of my favorite flowers had activated my own inner hunter. I have not only drowned the dastardly critters in soapy water but have snipped them in half with a scissor, stomped on their massive bodies with a heavy-soled shoe and even, in desperation, squished them between gloved fingers.
According to my husband, my methods are too gross. Instead, he takes a nightly walk through the garden rows, handpicking lubbers off the leaves of his precious plants. His diligence has paid off, as I see the lubber population waning. The question is: Will his efforts minimize next year's population?
Meanwhile, whatever grasshoppers have eluded Ralph's skillful hunts are growing larger, bolder and more unapproachable by the day. They have yet to molt into their final and most intimidating instar — the yellow-shelled stage, when they look like miniature lobsters and behave with bravado more akin to a bear than a bug. When that happens, I'll be curious to see how my husband responds. Will his nightly vigil continue, or will the lubber's bluster deter his efforts?
My husband's a brave man with a strong desire to defend his broccoli, but I fear he may have met his match in the mature lubber.
"When they get bigger, I'll just put on gloves," he insists. "Big, thick rubber gloves."
Rubber, meet lubber. Let the battle begin!