The Short Answer: Grasshoppers are predominantly plant eaters, including important agricultural crops. If they do not have other options available, grasshoppers will also eat decaying animal matter.
For more information about grasshoppers and what grasshoppers eat, read on.
What Are Grasshoppers?
Grasshoppers are insects that are members of the order Orthoptera. This order also includes crickets and locusts, which are the closest relatives of grasshoppers.
Scientists used to generally divide grasshoppers into two rough categories: Short-horned and long-horned. Short-horned grasshoppers are now members of the family Acrididae, and long-horned grasshoppers are now members of the family Tettigoniidae.
The Acrididae family includes both grasshoppers and locusts, while the Tettigoniidae family includes both grasshoppers and katydids. For the purpose of this article, whenever grasshoppers are mentioned, it could be in reference to species from either family but will not be in reference to locusts or katydids unless otherwise specified.
Fun Fact: Grasshoppers are over 300 million years old, making their oldest ancestor even older than the dinosaurs.
When looking at a grasshopper, you will see the three body segments that make up all insect species: a head, a thorax, and an abdomen. Their entire body is encased in a hard external skeleton, or exoskeleton.
On their head, grasshoppers have palps that allow them to grasp food, and mandibles that will then crush it. You will see a pair of antennae and a pair of compound eyes on the head as well.
Most species of grasshoppers have two pairs of wings and can fly, but some species never develop wings and remain grounded. Similar to crickets, grasshoppers can use their wings to make species-specific songs.
While crickets achieve this by rubbing their wings together, grasshoppers will rub the lower part of their jumping legs against their fore wings. Their ‘ears’ are actually membranes located on their abdomens that vibrate, and they are able to process many different songs and sounds.
Grasshoppers have six legs that originate on their thorax: four walking legs and two jumping legs. The walking legs, like their name suggests, are used primarily for walking on the ground but also function to hold food in place.
Their jumping legs are much larger and more well-defined than their walking legs and are a main distinguishing feature of grasshoppers. These powerful legs allow grasshoppers to leap about ten inches high and almost three feet long in a single bound.
While it may look like they are jumping, grasshoppers actually use a catapulting motion with their legs to launch themselves into the air.
Fun Fact: Relative to size, if humans could jump as far as grasshoppers, we would be able to leap across a whole football field!
Over 11,000 species of grasshoppers have been identified, and there are about 375 species in North America. They are usually some form of brown or green, but can also have yellow, red, black, and orange patterns as well.
The smallest grasshoppers are the family of Pygmy Grasshoppers (Tetrigidae) at 0.6 inches long, and the biggest one in the world is the Giant Weta at 4 inches. These behemoths are so heavy, their legs aren’t strong enough to jump like other grasshoppers.
Grasshoppers are hardy insects that can be found in all manner of habitats from deserts to mountains, and there are species on every continent except for Antarctica. Some species of grasshopper are specifically tree-dwellers, but many more prefer to live in the forest underbrush or grassy fields.
Most species of grasshoppers are diurnal, meaning that they are active during the day and rest at night. Grasshoppers will hide under leaves and in thick vegetation while they are resting, and spend their days foraging for food.
Grasshoppers are generally solitary insects and only come together to mate. Only males and females of the same species will mate, and they recognize each other through several different means. Some species use specialized songs or pheromones, while some others will even rely on visual appearance.
There are many animals that prey on grasshoppers, and they are an important part of many food webs. Birds are one of their most significant predators, with many different species from jays to wild turkeys munching on their local grubs.
Several mammals will hunt them as well, from raccoons and opossums to bats and rodents. Since most of these animals hunt nocturnally, they often catch grasshoppers that are resting.
Reptiles like snakes and turtles will prey on grasshoppers as they forage, as will toads. If they wander too close to the edge of lakes and streams, they can even become food for largemouth bass.
Many other insects like to eat grasshoppers, including centipedes and mantises, as well as beetles, dragonflies, bees, hornets, and spiders. Even some species of ants like carpenter ants will attack and eat grasshoppers.
Fun Fact: As a defense mechanism against predators, grasshoppers will spit out liquid as a diversion and then try to jump away.
If you’ve ever seen a dead grasshopper still clinging to a plant, it’s likely the work of Entomophthora grylli. This fungus grows into the body of a grasshopper when it lands on an infected plant, and slowly spreads throughout its entire body.
Once the grasshopper is dead, the fungus will produce spores and release them into the air to find other plants to infect.
If you thought the fungus was bad, other grasshoppers have it worse. Spinochordodes tellinii is a parasitic hairworm whose larvae will infect grasshoppers and use their bodies to grow.
The hairworm then chemically brainwashes the grasshopper and forces it to seek out water – then makes it jump in. The hairworm emerges from the drowning grasshopper and seeks a mate in the water, and the grasshopper usually dies.
Fun Fact: Grasshoppers have another predator – humans! From Asia to Africa to the Americas, grasshoppers have been incorporated into the local cuisine as an important source of protein.
What Do Grasshoppers Eat?
Grasshoppers are predominantly herbivores, meaning they eat plants as their primary food source. Some species of grasshopper are specialists, meaning they only eat very specific plants, while most other species are generalists, meaning they will eat a wide variety of plants.
Grasshoppers can also be scavengers, meaning they will eat dead animals if there is not another protein source available. Unlike their cricket cousins, grasshoppers will not eat other insects, nor will they cannibalize each other.
How Do Grasshoppers Get Their Food?
Specialist species will forage for their preferred meal, seeking out those plants and often traveling large distances to do so. One example is the Creosote Bush Grasshopper, which eats only – you guessed it – the creosote bush.
Generalists will eat anything that is in the area, munching happily on a number of different plants, bushes, and grasses. While grasshoppers are not migratory as a rule (because then they would be locusts), grasshoppers do not have territories and will travel as far as they need to in order to find ideal conditions and food supplies.
Fun Fact: The only difference between grasshoppers and locusts are their feeding behaviors – grasshoppers are solitary insects, while locusts will sometimes come together in large swarms to feed (think of the biblical plague of Egypt). Locusts may even change their physiology when they swarm.
What Do Baby Grasshoppers (Nymphs) Eat?
Grasshoppers have three life stages – egg, nymph, and adult. Mating often involves intricate courtship rituals between males and females, but once they have mated, the female will bury her eggs shallowly in either leaf litter or soil.
Females bind the eggs in a gooey organic material that hardens into an egg pod. Pods may have anywhere from 15 to 150 eggs depending on the species, and an average female can lay a maximum of 25 pods.
Eggs are normally laid in the midsummer and hatch the following spring or early summer when food is abundant. Nymphs emerge from the eggs and immediately get to eating.
Nymphs will feed on plant foliage and shoots, grasses, and clover. They go through five different growth stages or instars, and shed their exoskeleton each time in a process called molting. Each instar looks almost identical to the previous one, just bigger and with progressive wing development.
It takes around 5-6 weeks on average for a nymph to mature into an adult, and adults tend to live for about two months after maturing.
The mandibles of nymphs are weaker than those of adults, and they have to settle for softer, more easily crushed foods in their early growth stages. As they grow and mature, nymphs are slowly able to eat a broader range of plants.
Nymphs get all of the moisture they need from the plants they eat, and don’t generally have to drink water to stay hydrated.
What Do Adult Grasshoppers Eat?
Specialist adults will seek out their preferred plant, but the favorite choices of generalists include cotton, clover, oats, wheat, corn, alfalfa, rye, and barley.
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, a lot of important crops are favorites of grasshoppers, and in the western US, it is estimated that grasshoppers eat up to 25% of the available foliage each year. That makes them huge pests, and there are many insecticides that attempt to reduce the impact that grasshoppers have on crops.
Grasshoppers will eat both stems and leaves, and have even been known to eat vegetables as well. In Florida, the Lubber Grasshopper is notorious for destroying gardens and crops alike, especially the state’s many citrus trees.
Fun Fact: Some species of grasshopper will eat poisonous plants, which doesn’t harm them but acts as a deterrent for their predators.
If a grasshopper is desperate for food, they will eat the decaying flesh of other insects and animals to get protein. It isn’t their preferred food source – they would much rather have something green to munch on.
If you’re keeping a grasshopper in captivity, whether it’s a nymph or an adult, you can feed it grasses, and it will be perfectly happy. If you want to get a variety of different grasses, you can, and the grasshopper will pick the ones it can eat and leave the rest.
It may also be helpful to have some water available to them since the grasses you pick will lose their moisture as they age. Grasshoppers in captivity often exceed the two-month lifespan of their wild counterparts, so plan to have them around to feed for longer.
Grasshopper Food Options
If you are in the minority of people that want grasshoppers in your garden, or if you are keeping them at home as your pets, there are many different options for foods that will make them happy:
- Corn stalks and leaves
- Oat stalks and leaves
- Rye stalks
- Barley stalks
- Wheat stalks
- True grasses (especially canary grass)
- Ornamental grasses
The Grasshopper Digestive System
Like most insects, the digestive system of the grasshopper is broken into three different parts: a foregut, a midgut, and a hindgut. The foregut is made up of the salivary glands and the crop (storage organ), the midgut consists of the gizzard (stomach) and the ceca (digestive organ), and the hindgut has the ileum which is comparable to the large intestines and also contains the rectum.
After the grasshopper grabs a bite of food and chews it, the salivary glands inject saliva to moisten the food. Unlike in humans, there are no digestive enzymes in the grasshopper’s saliva.
Then the food passes down to the crop, where the food is ground up and stored until the midgut is ready to receive it. The gizzard and ceca are where the majority of digestion and absorption of nutrients occur, and the remainder goes on into the ileum in the hindgut. The last of the nutrients are absorbed here, and rest passes into the rectum as feces.
How Often Should I Feed My Grasshoppers
The average grasshopper can eat up to 16 times its own weight, so while they don’t weigh much, they still have the ability to consume massive amounts of food every day relative to their size.
Grasshoppers spend most of their days foraging for food and are used to eating many different times throughout the day. You’ll want to make sure that your grasshoppers always have a fresh supply of grasses available to eat, and that any old grass or other food is removed at least weekly.
As mentioned, grasses tend to lose moisture the older they are, so it couldn’t hurt to have fresh water available to your grasshoppers to make up for any evaporation. While water is definitely important, too much water in the form of humidity can be detrimental to your grasshoppers, so you’ll want to maintain a relatively non-humid environment overall.
Summary of What Grasshoppers Eat
Grasshoppers are insects that are part of the order Orthoptera. They are known for their ability to jump large distances and their tendency to eat important crops.
They are mainly herbivores, meaning they eat plants, but can also be scavengers when they can’t find their preferred foods. In this case, they will use dead, decaying animals as a protein source.
Baby grasshoppers are called nymphs, and they go through five instars before maturing into adults. This process takes 5-6 weeks, and adults generally live for two months.
Nymphs can only eat softer plant matter when they are younger, but start to eat the same foods as adults as they mature.
Some species of grasshopper are specialists, but the majority are generalists that don’t have a specific plant preference.
Grasshoppers like the stems and leaves of many different plants, grasses, and weeds, but also wreak havoc on cereal crops, cotton, and corn.