Step outside any August night in leafy suburbia and you’ll be serenaded by one of the loudest and most cheerful of North America’s singing insects, the common katydid.
This is the critter that choruses tirelessly through the evening, creating a Phil Spector-style wall of sound, buggy variety. “Katy did! Katy did!” one group shouts from the tree tops. “Katy didn’t, didn’t, didn’t!” comes the insistent response from more of these vocalizers.
I often wonder how many are out there in my dark yard – dozens? hundreds? thousands? There are plenty of web sites that include sound clips of katydids, but I’ve never been able to find anything that would help with this calculation. Maybe it’s one of those things of which they say “You don’t want to know.”
Quite unlike children of old, who were admonished to “be seen, not heard,” katydids are often heard but seldom seen. Were you to encounter one, you would meet a creature that looks like a green leaf standing on edge with a face on one end and a pair of long, jointed hind legs attached to the mid-section.
They make all that racket you hear by rubbing their wings together, but that’s pretty much all their wings are good for. They are weak fliers, and prefer to walk in their trundling way back up into the tree tops should they be knocked from their high perches.
I’m inordinately fond of this katydid bug music and happily listen to the nightly concert from the comfort of my screen porch. I’m glad, too, for those nights cool enough to still the drone of the air conditioner and throw open the windows, letting the sounds of the evening in. This music, it has a good beat – you could dance to it.
Technically, the wing-rasping that produces the sound is known as stridulating, a fine word to know. Of course, while I am listening to the lively cadence of katydid song with the ears on either side of my head, the katydids are harkening to the noise of their fellows with tympanal membranes on their knees. (Oh, katydid, my katydid, lend me a knee!)
I usually figure that katydids will begin their calling right around August 1, but this year the insect singers got off to an early start, somewhere around July 25 at my place. An old Appalachian rule of thumb says that fall will arrive 90 days after the katydids start to sing, so maybe I’d better mark my calendar.
Katydids are said to be especially fond of oaks as fodder but I’ve got mainly maples and locusts out back, and this seems to be just fine with my crew. Katydids eat leaves, bark, flowers and seeds, but mostly of trees and shrubs. They’ve not been implicated in any garden mayhem, so I consider them mainly benign. They are food in turn for a variety of birds and amphibians. In nature, everyone’s gotta eat.
What are these bugs singing about, you ask, as they go on and on into the night with nary a missed beat? Well, love, of course. It’s a passionate outpouring, mostly from the males, aimed at attracting a buggy little mate.
The raucous singing coincides with the katydid reproductive season, running generally from August through mid October, with the tempo of the music speeding up in hot weather and slowing down as nights cool. With the onset of fall, katydid numbers decline and with the arrival of the first hard frost, the remainder die; only their eggs survive the winter to begin the cycle anew.
Every once in a while, reports surface of a startling variation on the katydid theme – a few rare individuals are born a shocking, neon pink. This is due to the same sort of recessive gene business that produces albino (pure white) critters in other orders of the animal kingdom.
The Audubon Insectarium in New Orleans was successful in breeding some pink katydids in 2009 and they are outlandish but strangely attractive. How they survive in the wild standing out as they must is a question to ponder. Mother Nature is always getting up to odd little tricks and this must be one.
It never occurred to me that one might want to keep a katydid as a pet (although why not -- crickets are pretty popular as pets in Asia). If you cared to harbor a katydid, a covered aquarium would be the preferred home, and romaine lettuce the preferred food, I have read. Pink katydids just might be the next big thing in pet fashion if they could breed enough of them.
Now for the really big question: This nightly argument over Katy and her deeds – what exactly did Katy get up to? The best explanation I have seen is in a book called “Ninety-nine Gnats, Nits and Nibblers” by May Berenbaum (University of Illinois Press, 1989).
It seems a Mrs. A.C. Dufour in 1864 wrote some verse fingering Katy as one of two sisters interested in the same young man, Oscar by name. Oscar favored Blanche, scorning the lovely Katy, a possibly fatal mistake. Oscar went missing under mysterious circumstances. Speculation concerning Katy’s culpability continues nightly to this day: Did she or didn’t she?
Perhaps only a stridulating, night-dwelling insect knows for sure.