Just crickets

     Field cricket                                          Naveen Mathew/Wikimedia

     Field cricket                                          Naveen Mathew/Wikimedia

The melancholy cadence of the crickets you hear these nights is a sign that summer is waning — the cooler temperatures, the slower the song.

Crickets are especially active in late summer and early autumn, since it’s their last opportunity to mate, assuring a healthy population of little crickets next year. It’s not an unpleasant thing to hear them chirp-chirping away in some distant part of the yard; the name cricket comes from the French criquer, meaning “little creaker,” which is exactly right.

Only the males “sing,” scraping their serrated wing and leg parts together in a process not unlike running a fingernail across a comb. Scientists call this “stridulating,” but to crickets it is a love song, meant to summon a lady-love who, by the way, is listening with the ears in her knees — tympanic membranes located just below the joint in her front legs.

The Chinese and Japanese have kept crickets as house pets for centuries, enjoying their nocturnal serenade. We have different ideas about night music, and generally find a cricket on the loose in the house a loud and insistent annoyance.

Field and house crickets normally live outdoors, laying up during the day under rocks and leaf litter, in firewood piles and damp corners of the garden, and often infesting garbage dumps where their omnivorous appetites for decaying organic stuff of all kinds can easily be satisfied.

When it gets cooler, though, they seek warmer spots — and our outbuildings, garages and basements suit them just fine, thank you. House and field crickets are attracted to lights, and during their active nights crawl, jump or fly toward them. They can infiltrate the smallest crevices, and even fling themselves toward openings in second and third stories, so it’s small wonder that they sneak into our homes and disturb our sleep.

These two species make their presence quite obvious with their relentless torch songs. But there’s a third common cricket that’s even more stealthy, since it doesn’t make a sound. This is the camel cricket, so named because it presents a hump-backed appearance with its curving carapace.

Camel cricket                     Judy Gallagher/Wikimedia

Camel cricket                     Judy Gallagher/Wikimedia

While usually found in rock crevices, tree hollows and under rotting logs, they also invade basements and crawlspaces, and since they can live and reproduce indoors, they can build up in quite alarming numbers. They are big, ugly bugs and usually give a good case of the willies to people who come upon them, especially in tight quarters like crawl spaces. (“I am SO creeped out,” and “They scared the crap out of me” are typical complaints.)

The big-legged, long-antennaed creatures are wingless, but they are prodigious jumpers and can startle you silly. Extreme weather — extended periods of heat and excessive rain -- prompts them to seek “haborage” in moist damp places like your basement or laundry room.

They won’t bite when you go after them (like the feistier field cricket), but they will munch on stored items, especially clothing and particularly soiled garments or linens. There is that problem of their proliferating in favorable locations, conceivably leading to cricket invasions that would make the calmest homeowner shriek.

What can you do? Measures against the silent camel cricket generally work to exclude other of their chattier kin.

You need to foil the little buggers by sealing openings and cracks around foundations, windows, doors, clothes dryer vents and plumbing lines. Reduce moisture in critical areas, and keep any shrubs and groundcovers where they may lurk at least a foot away from the foundation. Don’t stack firewood, lumber, bricks or other clutter near your home. Keep stored items up off the floor and away from walls, or in secure containers.

As for stronger measures, you can spray a barrier of insecticide along the foundation and around vents — an all-purpose product should do it, repeated after heavy rains. You can whack the occasional cricket with a flyswatter, lay out sticky traps such as are sold for cockroaches and mice, or vacuum them up. Heavy infestation will probably call for baiting by a professional.

Be grateful that we don’t have to deal with the Mormon cricket, a species of the western United States that sometimes swarms in roving bands of thousands or even millions of individuals. Be glad we’re also not living among a new species identified in the Grand Canyon that has functional, grasping claws on its posterior for purposes as yet unknown.

These buggers belie the cheerful, friendly Jiminy Cricket image of Disney fame, don’t they? I don’t wish them ill, but let them stay outside, I say — after all, we’re territorial creatures, too, and can’t be blamed for defending our homes.