Dependent on humidity and recent rain, my tree frogs are loudest at night, joined by the katydid who repeats katydid, Katy didn’t. Summer nights can be alarmingly noisy, yet it is something that registers in our sound library to the point of disregard. If summer nights became as quiet as winter, would we notice?
With the alarming drop in butterflies this summer, I am trying to pay attention to what else may be missing. The cicadas fill summer days with their rasp, which is far from quiet. To me, they may represent summer sound over all else. Katydids are elusive, although plentiful if their call is any indication. They, too, produce a rasp by rubbing their forewings together. We may not hear the subtle vocabulary, but it addresses reproduction, territory, aggressive warnings, and defensive ventriloquizing. The latter is the ability to send sound signals down a branch to hide its location. They are designed to mimic a leaf, which is where they hide and feed, preferably high in trees or other suitable platforms. The calling begins in the early evening, and males are the real noisemakers. Once while sitting in my night garden, I hear a loud chewing sound, which came from a katydid chewing on the end of a papyrus flower. Not that there were a lot of lip-smacking, just powerful mandibles that can chop solidly into the thick foliage. I found it entertaining and memorable.
To hear the katydid and didn’t, you listen to the echoes. These calls are the reason for their name. Our locally abundant species is the greater angle wing katydid or Pterophylla camellifolia, the species name referring to a camel and the similar hump on their back. Not good flyers, related to crickets (more so than grasshoppers), it is more like a partial jump and glide. Females are equipped with a curved ovipositor or egg-laying structure, which will deposit small brown discs on a branch or leaf to winter over and hatch in spring. Like most of our insects, freezing temperatures will kill adults in fall.
Maybe the craziest fact about katydids is their ears’ location, in the crook of their front legs, just below the knee. They are so placed to work in concert with vibration, all the better to aid with night activity. Their long antennae are another tool to sort out things that go bump in the night.
Virginia is home to numerous other katydid species, mostly smaller to half the size of our greater angle wing. As a common insect and a plentiful one, they do not account for much in the way of crop or garden damage. Leaf nibblers of mostly deciduous forests, their feeding can’t be compared to the more destructible grasshopper or Japanese beetle.
With their all too familiar night noise, I still encourage you to listen and appreciate. It tells the gardener that the day is almost over, and the night symphony is about to begin.