Grasshoppers – Friend or Foe in the Garden?

When I was a kid I just loved catching grasshoppers.  I don’t know why, they just seemed fun and harmless.  I was fascinated by them.  I grew up in Atlantic Canada and the grasshoppers there did not seem to be as huge and scary as those I encounter in Southern Ontario.  They seem so big here that they are frightening.  It can actually hurt if one of them whacks me up the side of the head!  I sure don’t try catching them any more.  Until recently, I didn’t realize what a menace they are to a gardener.  I’m writing this article in response to a reader’s request and in response to multiple questions we have received this year from Youtube viewers.

There are hundreds of species of grasshoppers and most are pests to a garden.  Grasshoppers are herbivores.  They like to eat green leaves, which sometimes means grass and weeds but it can also mean leaves of your garden plants.   A “good” year for grasshoppers can appear like a locust plague as described in the Bible.  A swarm of grasshoppers can devour a farmer’s field.  Grasshoppers start out eating holes in leaves but can quickly devour entire leaves leaving just the stem and the veins of the leaf.   I’ll include pictures below.

The lifecycle of a grasshopper ranges depending on the species.  In general, after mating, the adult female grasshopper burrows a hole and deposits her eggs.  She can deposit a few hundred eggs over her lifetime but not necessarily all in one day.  Most grasshoppers over-winter in their egg stage (some can overwinter in other stages) and hatch in the spring as nymphs, which are 5mm (0.2inch) small looking grasshoppers.  Pretty cute little things.  But they begin eating green leaves immediately.  They can’t travel far at this stage so they eat what is in close proximity to their hatching site.  Most grasshoppers go through about five skin sheddings (moults) to become their adult versions with full wings.  In ideal conditions this can take between one and two months.

A warm extended fall season greatly increases the amount of grasshoppers the following year, and can even give them a head start in the Spring if they got to develop longer in the egg before cold winter temperatures set in.  Cold winters with little snow actually can kill off many of the eggs depleting the grasshopper numbers in the spring.  So if you were ravaged by grasshoppers this year, you should be hoping for a cold winter!  Cold winters help a lot in controlling the pest population.  You might hope a late spring frost will kill newly hatched grasshoppers but that hope is in vain.  Young grasshoppers are very hardy and a late frost will do nothing to diminish their numbers.  A wet spring and summer will discourage heavy feeding.  Grasshoppers really thrive in dry conditions.   A humid summer can increase disease in the grasshopper population which can help control the grasshopper numbers for the following year.

How to control the grasshopper population without chemicals?

  • Encourage growth of beneficial insects that eat other insects.  Crickets love to eat grasshopper eggs.  So crickets are your friends!  Bee flies and blister beetles lay their eggs close to grasshopper eggs, then their larva hatch and eat the grasshopper eggs.  Wasps work the same way… but who wants wasps in the garden?  Infact, blister beetles are no fun either!
  • Some birds will eat grasshoppers so do what you can to attract beneficial birds to your yard such as bluebirds.  Chickens are a fabulous pest control bird, if you can keep chickens legally.   However, keep in mind that birds will eat your beneficial insects as well.  So it seems that for every great help with controlling grasshoppers you get another disadvantage to your garden.
  • I think the best thing you can do to control the grasshopper population is to till your soil in the fall so you expose the grasshopper eggs to the harshness of the winter.  Till again in the spring to kill young weeds so baby grasshoppers have nothing to feed on in the area and either they die or just move on.  Tilling before egg laying time (late summer) also discourages female grasshoppers from laying their eggs there because they prefer undisturbed soil for egg laying.  It’s only the top inch of soil you need to till.  They don’t lay their eggs very deep.

Exodus 10:13-15 “So Moses stretched out his staff over Egypt, and the Lord made an east wind blow across the land all that day and all that night. By morning the wind had brought the locusts; they invaded all Egypt and settled down in every area of the country in great numbers. Never before had there been such a plague of locusts, nor will there ever be again.  They covered all the ground until it was black. They devoured all that was left after the hail—everything growing in the fields and the fruit on the trees. Nothing green remained on tree or plant in all the land of Egypt.” NIV

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