I'm attempting to raise a few Oecanthus nymphs for the first time, so I've decided to post my experiences here in case it helps someone else (perhaps in learning what not to do!). Unfortunately, I'm starting from zero knowledge of Orthoptera and zero experience, so I'm learning as I go and relying on a *very* kind metrioptera (Brandon Woo) and Nancy Collins along with the minuscule amount of literature I've been able to find. I have no education in the sciences and am therefore doing this from pure emotion, having fallen in love with the genus.
Dedicated to Orpheus, the first Oecanthus I met. He taught me what it is to love a tree cricket, and for the love of Orpheus, I am trying to learn more.
This is Orpheus: met as mature, worn adult on 02.04.2019. Ascended to cricket heaven just after 10:00am on 05.27.2019.
For now, I'll just touch on 1) searching for Oecanthus, 2) housing, 3) caring for, and 4) observing. I will, of course, answer any questions regarding my limited experiences. I'll be adding information as I think of it or gather it, as I am just beginning.
1. SEARCHING (and heartbreak)
The hardest part for me is finding Oecanthus in the wild, as they are rare where I am. For example, apart from my recent two records of Oecanthus fultoni, there are only three bugguide records of the species in the state of Texas: two from 2017 and Nancy's record from the Texas/Mexico border area in 2014. (Nancy has mentioned that they occur down there, but it's a difficult and expensive drive for me and would also involve Border Patrol who wouldn't take kindly to an old hag transporting live crickets back up north in the state. Most importantly, it would be tremendously stressful to the crickets and I'm not confident they could survive the trip. I love them much too much to harm them.)
I can see that these guys are incapable of moving any distance from where they were born, as they do not fly or even hop well like grasshoppers and katydids. Therefore, I believe they must be hyperlocalized in a handful of microhabitats. I was only able to find one such place in all my searching of central Texas, a patch of Oenothera curtiflora in a local "nature preserve." The patch was about 20 square feet in a garden area. I collected only a few over six weeks, being extremely careful not to disturb vegetation and leaving most of the crickets behind so they could thrive and continue.
the heartbreak part:
However, to my absolute horror, when I returned to the preserve the next time to look for a female fultoni, I found that they had decimated the habitat, killing every single cricket and removing every last Oenothera curtiflora plant. I was told that the native wildflower "didn't look good" with the other flowers and that people don't want bugs around. So I am left with a male fultoni without a mate and a handful of paired varicornis. I am devastated over this destruction of habitat, and I regret not having been able to rescue the Oecanthus nymphs and adults who were flourishing in that tiny area and also not having collected some of the plant. I had no idea that the nature preserve was going to destroy its nature and a rare and precious species of cricket.
2. HOUSING (and equipment)
My pairs of Oecanthus that I managed to find are in 30" butterfly cages (Educational Science brand) under T5 LED grow lights, 48-inch-long bulbs attached to stands. Each cage has a few 4-inch potted plants in saucers. The growlights are on timers, on at 8:00am and off at 5:00pm during summer with adjustments as the amount of daylight decreases.
I use post-it notes taped to each cage with labels (individual ID, date and place collected as well as original plant, date moulted into full adult, date of first song, any other significant events). In addition, I keep thin-tipped Sharpies by each cage to make notes, clothespins for each cage to hold the net open when unzipped, thin paintbrushes for cleaning leaves of Fluker's cricket powder (available at pet stores and online), dissection scissors for trimming leaves when necessary, plant saucers (small round food container thingies from Dollar Tree), skinny water bottles and open saltshakers for watering plants, fine mist bottles, a temperature and humidity gauge, and more. I keep a journal by the first cage and work around the room each morning for cage cleaning and roll call. I make a note of where each person is. They often develop certain habits and have a preferred place to sleep. Some are hoppier than others and I know not to disturb a leaf near them. Others are more laid back. I learn their individual personalities.
3. CARE (and love)
Some daily care is required to keep Oecanthus crickets in a healthy, safe, and comfortable environment.
Oecanthus frass is somewhat similar to frass of many first-instar butterfly caterpillars: generally dry, short pellet-shaped, and about the size and colour of a poppy seed.
Each morning, I clean the cages and take roll. I water each plant, change the saucers underneath them, and change newspaper under the plants when necessary. I remove the old Fluker's cricket powder from leaves using small paintbrushes and put new powder on a few of the upper leaves. (Fluker's cricket powder *must* be fresh and absolutely dry to not be dangerous to your crickets.) Where each Oecanthus is sleeping determines how well I am able to clean each cage and plant, but I've gotten much better at moving folks on their plants and using holding cages for any plant I remove from the cage.
CAUTION: When using zip-up butterfly cages, please note that many creatures (not just crickets, but also caterpillars, beetles, true bugs) like to hang out on the zipper where the fabric is a bit thicker. It's essential that you get into the habit of checking the cage carefully before opening it by looking through the clear side, then tapping the zipper all around and opening very slowly to avoid harming the creature. Open just enough to put your finger inside and then run your finger and hand along the zipper before unzipping. Oecanthus nymphs, especially the tiniest ones, like to hang out on the zipper, so I disturb them just enough to cause them to walk away or hop away from the danger zone.
If I have to move crickets, such as a tiny nymph who hops out of the cage when I open it to clean, I use plastic containers of different sizes (rectangular) with postcards, cut to size, to slide underneath. In this way, I can cup the container over the nymph, slide the postcard underneath, and move the cricket without having to touch or frighten him. With older nymphs and adults, I can sometimes move the plant they are on, as well. A tiny nymph in the bottom of the cage who needs to be moved can often be lured onto a leaf. I then move the leaf up to a plant and let the little guy crawl off the loose leaf and onto the plant.
In the evenings before sunset I mist all the plants through the netting at low levels to avoid getting cricket powder on the upper leaves wet.
In my first group, I recorded the times of first songs of the evening, last song of the morning, any mating/laying of eggs I saw, and other events.
4. OBSERVATIONS (and confusion)
a favourite meal for varicornis: Turk's Cap blossoms
At night, I use a small flashlight to peer into the cages to see what the crickets are up to. They generally become quite active about an hour after sunset.
My Oecanthus of the varicornis group make up almost all of what I have. I decided they must all be the same species and randomly paired them up based on when they moulted to adult, putting similarly aged folks together. Beyond that, I have only one female fultoni and two males in the same cage, which makes the males very unhappy. They chase each other, and I am unable to find another female fultoni. The varicornis are coupled up, but two cages have an extra female. Finally, I had two of a mystery species who looked kind of alike so I paired them up. I later learned that they were Oecanthus celerinictus. They mated, and after what seemed like a long time, finally laid eggs.
All of my original varicornis group pairs mated and laid eggs. I initially assumed that either they were all the same species or they hybridised, perhaps being more progressive crickets who believe in interspecific marriage. I'm confident now that they are indeed all O. varicornis.
When varicornis or fultoni males are wooing their ladies, I've observed that they chase the lady for a bit and get in front of her until she climbs on his back. She usually runs off at first and then soon after finds him too irresistible to ignore. After mating, she remains near him for a while. I've noticed that if they sleep together on the same leaf of a plant during the day, they usually mate that evening at dusk. More often, however, they sleep separately, but maybe one pair a day will cosy up together under a leaf.
Oecanthus celerinictus couple (L), Oecanthus fultoni couple (middle), Oecanthus varicornis (R) cosying up for daytime sleeping:
My fultoni makes a special noise when he's mating: I can always hear if he's mating. His wings quiver a bit as she drinks the metanotal fluid. My varicornis are quiet lovers.
female O. fultoni removing spermatophore case after mating:
Oecanthus varicornis mating, transferring the spermatophore to the female:
Oecanthus varicornis drinking metanotal fluid after mating, with spermatophore attached:
• Laying Eggs:
I have not been able to determine how long after mating it takes for the female lays eggs. I suspect it is one day (the following evening).
This O. varicornis is laying eggs in the stem of Turk's Cap:
Very occasionally, I have found eggs that were dropped or laid on the stem surface when females are too weak to insert the egg inside the stem. This seems to only happen with very old females, as described below under "Egg Dropping." (There are plenty of good plants provided in all of my cricket cages.)
Eggs are approximately 3mm long
eggs in stems (where they should be):
unusual pattern from Oecanthus varicornis in Chromolaena odorata:
I believe that in Texas (except for perhaps extreme south at the Mexico border) as well as in the rest of the U.S., most Oecanthinae go through one generation per year. It seems a smaller number (mostly O. varicornis), however, do hatch out over summer, becoming adults in September. I was able to find nymphs from April through early June, and adults from May through mid-July. (Texas summers are periods of drought and extreme heat, so both plants and insects die off.) Further evidence of their being mostly univoltine is in the night sounds: Oecanthinae can be heard here through early and mid-July, and then in considerably smaller numbers, varicornis and very, very few fultoni in September. However, since I am raising Oecanthus indoors in an artificial environment, some of my crickets' eggs hatched.
The first eggs were laid on or near June 10 on Chromolaena odorata from a pair who both moulted to adult on June 3. The male's first song was June 7.
Initially, I found nymphs in two separate cages and I believe each group hatched approximately 10 days after eggs were laid. I moved about a dozen tiny nymphs into a separate cage.
Oecanthus varicornis babies:
Oecanthus varicornis two days old:
Oecanthus celerinictus and fultoni nymphs are green. Oecanthus varicornis nymphs are generally off-white with a burgundy stripe down the middle.
The greener ones here are celerinictus. The two whiter ones (top and bottom of images) are varicornis:
Nymphs are hoppier than adults (care must be taken when cleaning cages). Moulting remains a bit of a mystery to me, as I rarely get to see it. I suspect that moulting happens mostly overnight. In butterfly cages, my nymphs generally moult on the net or underneath leaves.
Oecanthus varicornis moulting from 1st to 2nd instar:
(note the slipping out of exuvia, freeing up of legs and antennae, and turning around to consume exuvia)
Oecanthus varicornis moulting from 4th to 5th instar:
Oecanthus varicornis moulting to full adult (male):
Oecanthus varicornis exuvia:
Oecanthus celerinictus exuvia:
Nighttime in my house at peak season is a symphony of Oecanthus, and the orchestral glory makes me giddy with delight.
I observed that my varicornis sang their first songs four days after moulting to full adult, whereas my fultonis sang one to two days after moulting to adult. My varicornis and fultoni individuals have different "voices" and I can sometimes recognise who's singing by the pitch and intensity.
My Oeanthus celerinictus males are the earliest singers in the evenings. Their "voices" are much softer than varicornis and fultoni.
The adult nymphs of my original Oecanthus celerinictus pair employ two distinct songs: a mating call and a territorial "buzz," a short, soft song when another male is too close.
Because fultoni are so rare in my area, I was only able to find three (2 males, 1 female), even though it's the species I'm most interested in studying. The Oecanthus fultoni has at least three distinct voices: one for calling (continuous chirps), one for territorial warnings (a few distinctive longer chirps), and one used while mating (short, soft chirps). The adult nymphs of these guys employ the same three distinctive calls.
* A few seconds of O. varicornis song: https://www.flickr.com/photos/95854225@N02/48110978797
* A few seconds of O. celerinictus song: https://www.flickr.com/photos/95854225@N02/49158716461
Like other crickets, male Oecanthinae want to send the most effective signal through their calls. Some Oecanthinae may do so by making holes in leaves to serve as baffles. The cricket can crawl partially through with his forewings (tegmina) held against the hole's edges and surrounding leaf to emit a more forceful and efficient signal. It's clear to me that Oecanthinae and other types of crickets have taken graduate-level classes in physics and acoustics to design the most effective baffles and megaphones to use in their serenades.
This is one of the baffles made my Oecanthus fultoni. The broad leaves of Turk's Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii) appear to make for an excellent sound studio:
My Oecanthus varicornis and celerinictus are more likely to use the natural shapes of leaves to position themselves for optimal singing.
Oecanthus varicornis singing:
Shortly after it gets completely dark, my Oecanthus crickets get busy munching breakfast after their daytime sleep. I use Fluker's cricket powder on top of leaves, and this is absolutely what they go for first. I always give them plenty of the feed, but occasionally they have minor tiffs over food. They will push others out of their way using their antennae or forelegs or hindlegs. On one occasion, I saw a female pick up a large chunk of cricket food. Another female attempted to remove it from her mouth, but the first female pushed her away. However, a male then came along and managed to successfully grab the chunk from her mouth. The female surrendered and walked away. Although I try not to open cages at night so as not to disturb my crickets, I did on this occasion and added more powder on that particular leaf so that no one had reason to argue.
While my Oecanthus varicornis and fultoni are not generally active during the day, they will occasionally become animated once I put fresh cricket powder on their leaves. Most likely to do this are my celerinictus who are more likely to move about and even occasionally sing during daylight hours (mostly shortly after daylight or shortly before dusk). The cricket powder is a rather irresistible attraction to them, it seems.
Besides the feed, my creatures munch on their plants, with certain favourites (see below).
4-inch pots for cages:
partially munched fruit of Turk's Cap by O. fultoni:
munched organic bell pepper plant and okra (right) by O. varicornis:
I have tried a multitude of plants: some work; most don't. Their favourite is one is Chromolaena odorata, which is difficult to find at nurseries. They will lay eggs on Chromolaena odorata, Ageratina havanensis, Salvia leucantha, Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii, and some species of Hibiscus.
Ageratina havanensis has a tougher stem, but O. varicornis will lay eggs on it. I added Hibiscus of two different varieties. The males like their leaves for singing under and the leaves make nice trays for cricket powder. I tried Agastache because the stems looked right to me, but my crickets disagreed. Salvia leucantha is a good plant for them (for egg laying and eating), but it does not do well indoors. My crickets enjoy eating Chromolaena odorata, Malvaviscus arboreus, Ageratina havanensis, and Monarda fistulosa. Some also like coneflowers and rudbeckia. The females like to sleep under the flowers and I saw one female eating from the coneflower. As I update this in late summer, I have added some broad-leaved vegetable plants, such as sweet bell pepper, okra, and similar. These are not egg-laying plants, but will serve as food for nymphs, and the leaves can be used as trays for cricket powder.
• Leaf Notching:
Several of my O. varicornis engage in leaf notching, but my other species do not. I know Monarchs do this to cut off sap flow, but this behaviour in Oecanthus on Chromolaena odorata and a few other plants struck me as odd. Mine use the notched leaves to sleep on - both males and females do this. I think the crickets bite into the stems to get moisture.
• Stem Scratching:
Only my Oecanthus celerinictus do this, and they do it quite a bit. They leave 'scratch" marks on the stems of the many various types of plants I add to the cages. It might be related to egg laying, but there are other places on stems with clear egg holes and no scratching. It remains a mystery to me.
• Egg Dropping:
Very old females when no longer able to drill holes into stems will often drop their eggs, either on or near a stem or just on the ground. I've seen this behaviouir in Oecanthus varicornis, O. celerinictus, and O. fultoni, the three species I've raised.
This celerinictus is dropping eggs on the surface of the stem, which then fall to the ground:
This very old varicornis has an egg stuck in her ovipositor:
This fultoni, on the last day of her life, has an egg stuck in her ovipostor:
• Behaviour by Species during Cage Cleaning:
Cage cleaning is a daily (and necessary) routine. No one, of course, likes having his bed cleaned when he's trying to sleep and dreaming of fresh green leaves. My (only) three species behave differently. O. varicornis are quite chill about it all. They generally remain on their plant or on the net while I am cleaning. These guys are generally easy to move and are cooperative. O. celerinictus, by contrast, are very nervous and little hopzillas. I have to be extra careful with them, as they will panic and hop multiple times when disturbed. O. fultoni's superpower is invisibility. They are quite good at being invisible and completely still. This is easier for cage cleaning while I brush off old cricket powder, add new powder, water their plants, and change their paper.
• Hopping by Species:
Oecanthus celerinictus nymph:
My Oecanthus celerinictus are the hoppiest of the three species I've raised. Nymphs hop more often than adults. They generally hop multiple times in multiple directions. I know to wait until after a full series of hops to attempt to move them back to a safe place. A typical "panic hop" when lightly disturbed will comprise an average of six hops in varying directions until they rest.
In contrast, Oecanthus fultoni, who are less keen on hopping, will hop once or twice and then remain still. They generally prefer the cloak of invisibility.
Oecanthus varicornis, of my three species, are the least willing to hop: they prefer to walk. If they hop, it's usually only once. Because they are slower and more laid back, they are easy to handle and move.
• Territorial Behaviour
Males sometimes exhibit territorial behaviours, usually just by lifting their wings or sometimes by making soft wing sounds. I've seen them compete over food or over a lady. I try to keep my adult males in separate cages with their ladies. When they are very old, however, I sometimes put pairs together.
These two O. celerinictus males were very mildly aggressive over cricket powder on a leaf of a bell pepper plant (plenty of food was provided on more leaves, however):
• Metanotal Gland Secretions:
It seems that the metanotal fluid is not only irresistible to the ladies, but also to the nymphs. I have observed in O. celerinictus that the nymphs will climb on the backs of singing adults to get to the fluid. The gentlemen, of course, shake them off. In the case below, an adult male successfully drinks metanotal fluid from fellow male. Who knew Oecanthinae were so woke?
• Finding Crickets in the Cage:
Advice to anyone else doing this: if you can't find your cricket in the cage, don't move anything out of the cage. Check the plants, on top of and under every leaf, the stems, and the soil. Check the pot itself and the saucer that the pot is in. When you are sure the cricket is not on the plant, remove the plant and secure it in a separate cage. Do this for each plant. (I always keep a "holding cage" while cleaning cages for this purpose.) Check the net at all levels. They like to hide in corners of the net. Check the paper in the bottom of the cage. In all the crickets I have raised, I only had one vanish into thin air. I still don't know what happened to him, and it still breaks my heart when I think of him.
• Life Span and Death:
Oecanthus fultoni having her last meal one day before dying: (moulted to full adult 09/18/19, died 11/20/19):
"They say of some temporal suffering, "No future bliss can make up for it," not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory."
― C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
Referring to spring-born, actively mating Oecanthinae: After moulting to full adult, my adult crickets generally lived 6 to 11 weeks, averaging 8 to 10. I believe that the active mating (often every night with many pairs) shortened their lives. Females lived slightly longer than males, but often would die within a couple of days after their mate died. It seems to me that providing spermatophores and metanotal fluid is even more expensive than egg-laying is for females. As I raise more nymphs, I will see if hatching at different times of the year affects life span. From what I've seen so far regarding overall health, the first spring-born nymphs are the healthiest. The original varicornis nymphs that I collected and brought home to raise succeeded at nearly 100% to adulthood, whereas the next generation's success was only around 50% or slightly less. My celerinictus and fultoni second generation did better, but did not reproduce well, probably because they were siblings since I could only find one pair of each in the wild. I have no idea what the success rate of Oecanthinae is in the wild, but I assume they live longer in captivity.
I keep special hospice cages for all types of creatures that I raise who get too weak to be in a regular cage. The hospice cages are set up to allow the creature to eat and drink and move about a bit, and most importantly, to be comfortable at the end of their lives.
My Oecanthus crickets in captivity usually fall to the bottom of the cage when they die. Many move off the plant and cling to the net before dying. Mated pairs usually die within a couple of days of each other. Otherwise healthy males generally stop singing 2 to 7 days before dying.
Unfortunately, due to my inability to find these guys in the wild, I had to start with only single pairs of a species. It is my observation that inbreeding is highly detrimental to Oecanthus crickets. The first generation of nymphs (all siblings) from my originals did well. The next generation, however, the nymphs of mated siblings, fared poorly. Many had significant deformities, usually resulting from failed moultings, and most were susceptible to disease, it appears (something that causes then to darken and die young). I imagine that in the wild, some inbreeding occurs, as it appears to me that these guys are largely hyperlocalised because of their relative immobility, but it seems likely that nymphs of mated siblings die off early.
• Fluker's High-Calcium Cricket Diet:
-- a lifesaver. I put a pinch on a few of the upper leaves each morning, and they sure go for it! I only wish they made Fluker's Beetle Diet for the Labidomera clivicollis that I raised in the hundreds. Those guys overwinter as adults and will *only* eat milkweed -- keeping a supply of healthy milkweed plants through winter is no easy feat and not for the faint of heart.
• Further aside:
Just for kicks, I raised a meadow katydid and a bush katydid alongside these guys. The Scudderia was brought inside on May 17 from Monarda fistulosa in my garden and moulted into a gorgeous adult male on June 30. His first song was at 6:30pm, July 3, and I released him that evening in the same spot where I found him. After he oriented himself, he made one perfect, graceful flight into my peach tree (Godspeed, my friend!) The meadow katydid, brought inside on April 23, took her time growing up. She moulted into adult on July 11 and was released into the garden on July 14. The katydids both love Conoclinium greggii (a native mistflower here), which my Oecanthus friends are less keen about.
• Unanswered Questions:
Oh, so many.
• How long can a female store viable sperm?
• Will a female lay unfertilised eggs?
• Does the female produce eggs before mating or only after mating?
• Producing spermatophores appears to be quite costly for males. Is producing metanotal fluid costly? Does it cause pain to the males when the females feed? Males wriggle and shake when females are feeding from the metanotal gland. (My females tend to live slightly longer than males, in general.)
• I've read that female Gryllus crickets who've mated with more than one male have the ability to selectively use stored sperm, opting for the highest quality and rejecting genetically similar (avoiding inbreeding). Do Oecanthinae have this ability?
• How much energy is spent through singing? My singing but unmated males seem to live longer than mating males, as if singing is not so expensive, but mating is.
• Male O. fultoni make a distinctive noise when mating, but O. varicornis and O. celerinictus do not. Do any other species besides fultoni make mating noises?
• Do males recognise individual females? Mine seem to get quite attached to their mates, often sleeping side-by-side.
• Do Oecanthus crickets have any chemical receptors for either conspecifics or for plants? Mine do not appear to be aware of either other crickets or of plants except through visual cues (apart from obvious reactions to conspecific calls).
• Does hearing extend beyond the ability to hear conspecifics?
• These guys can't fly and don't even hop well. To what extent, if any, can they relocate?
• If the plant dies, do the eggs die? I assume they do, from lack of moisture and protection.
• Can Oecanthus crickets distinguish between annual and perennial plants when choosing stems for laying eggs? In the wild where given choices, how do they choose which plants' stems to use?
• Do different species have preferred plants for feeding? There appear to be preferred plants for hiding and camouflage.
• Why can't they fly?
I will add more as I begin to learn what I'm doing.
I hope this little thread might help someone who wants to raise these precious creatures, and I am eager to hear from anyone who reads this or is either knowledgeable or just interested in Oecanthus crickets.
And if anyone knows of an orthopterist in Texas, please let me know!