The House Cricket - Acheta domesticus
In German, this little insect is known as Heimchen, in Dutch Huiskrekel, in French Le Grillon Domestique, and in English The House Cricket. To Carl Linnaeus and his scientific kin, it is known as Acheta domesticus, and to the MSNH it is known as the Taxon of the Month.
As I write, I am listening to roughly 500 house crickets chirping in my apartment.
It is a chilly late-April evening, 51°F outside. It is a bit warmer in my apartment, but the crickets are still not chirping very fast. They would prefer if it was in the high 70s, or even 80s. I am able to single out one cricket’s chirps amidst the chorus and count how many chirps he makes in fourteen seconds: twenty. I add the number forty to this, which tells me that it is roughly 60°F in my apartment. This equation for figuring out the temperature based on crickets was published in The Farmer’s Almanac, starting in the late 1800s.
I started raising house crickets in my Brooklyn apartment in December 2016. Since then, I’ve raised six generations of crickets, with an average colony size of 1000 crickets. I raise crickets to eat, to educate and inspire people, and to hold cricket-listening concerts. I also write essays and poetry about them. One of my goals is to open up a storefront living-museum where people can step off of the city street and into an oasis of cricket songs. I hope this happens soon, because my apartment is getting crowded. My appreciation for these amazing, often unnoticed creatures, has inspired me to learn more about their origins, diversity, behavior, ecology, thereby creating this Taxon of the Month post.
Origins and Distribution The origin of the house cricket is debated among scientists. They may have originated in Southeast Asia, Southwest Asia, and North Africa. It is thought that they arrived to Europe in the Middle Ages, through the spice trade. Once in Europe, they became a common housemate to humans, taking advantage of the year-round warmth of homes, hearths, and garbage dumps. House crickets arrived to North America in the 18th century and have since spread across the continent, establishing populations in southern Canada, eastern United States (except the Florida peninsula), southern California, and northern Mexico. Much of the recent spread of house crickets is thought to be a result of feral populations that have escaped from cricket farms where they are bred for reptile-feed, a high volume industry, which ships millions of crickets to pet stores and zoos each week.
Appearance House crickets are yellowish-brown, with a distinctive dark band between their eyes, and an additional dark spot between their long antennae (emerging beneath their eyes), which I think looks like a dog nose. Their bodies are countershaded, which means that their backs are darker than their undersides. A series of symmetrical, geometric patterns adorn the top of their abdomens. Along the midline, these patterns resemble a pair of abutting keystones, which decrease in size until reaching the cerci. They have two compound eyes and grinding mouthparts. Before reaching maturity, they molt between eight and ten times. Each phase of molting is called an instar. On emerging from a molt, their skin is often whitish and translucent. Once they reach maturity, both males and females develop four wings, two tough forewings that protect two softer hindwings on the thorax. They do not use these wings to fly. Rather, the males use their wings to chirp. Like all insects they have three pairs of legs. The hindmost legs are the most noticeable, since they are adapted for jumping. Crickets rarely jump as a means of decisive locomotion, but rather do so as a response to fear or agitation. Crickets also have two sensory appendages called cerci at the tip of the abdomen. The cerci looks like a flying V. Mature females have an ovipositor, a needle-like egg-laying organ, between the cerci, and are very easy to identify for this reason.
Songs Crickets use sounds and vibrations to communicate with each other. They have tympanic membrane on their front legs. This "ear" is like a human eardrum, and is very sensitive to sound vibrations. Only male crickets can stridulate, or chirp. They have a file and scraper body part on their wings, with which they produce their songs. They do not use their legs to chirp. Caelifera, the other suborder of Orthoptera which includes grasshoppers, do use their legs for chirping. Crickets have different songs for different purposes. The chirping that is most common is that of a male trying to attract females. It is rhythmic and quite loud. Temperature affects the rate at which they chirp. Often, male crickets will lock into rhythms with one another as they collectively attract females. Once a female approaches a male cricket, he woos her with a courting song that is very quiet and sweet sounding, almost like a purring cat. Once the male and female crickets have finished mating, he sings another song to keep her nearby and guard her from being mated with another male. When one male invades another male's territory and they encounter one another, they produce an aggressive song, which is a loud trill. This song is often made before or after an instance of combat.
Mating It is worth noting that a female cricket mounts the male cricket and remains on top throughout copulation. Mating is concluded when the male emits a spermatophore, a whitish gelatinous capsule that contains sperm, and deposits the capsule under the female’s genital opening. Once the pair have separated, the female rips the spermatophore open, by herself, at which point the sperm travel toward her reproductive organs. Within a few days, she will begin laying her fertilized eggs in any available, damp substrate. Estimates vary widely on how many eggs a female cricket will lay in her lifetime, with numbers ranging between 100 and 700.
Cricket paralysis virus Throughout the eighties and into the early aughts, a "cricket paralysis virus" was reported to be involved in catastrophic collapses in American and European cricket rearing facilities. This virus killed an estimated 90 percent of all A. domesticus crickets in breeding facilities. There is some debate as to whether the disease in question was, in fact, a DNA containing virus called Acheta domesticus densovirus (AdDNV), as opposed to the RNA virus referred to a CrPV. Regardless, over 60 million crickets died as a result.
Crickets and Humans I'm not the only Brooklynite who loves crickets. The connection between human and crickets extends across the globe. For example, crickets were once ubiquitous residents of the Paris subway system, but in recent years their presence diminished. “The Protection League for the Crickets of Paris Metro” was established in 1992 and blamed transit strikes for decimating the population, saying that service freezes led to actual freezing temperatures, which the crickets could not endure. They also blamed increased sanitation for depriving the crickets of food. Additionally, they claimed that a smoking ban in the metro deprived crickets of a prime food source, cigarette butts, though this claim has been contested. "Ideally, we'd like the two Metro lines where there are the most crickets to be declared a Natural Park for them," said the president of the Protection League.
Crickets and Entomophagy I began farming crickets with the intention of spreading the gospel of entomophagy. Crickets are a viable food source for humans, and require significantly less food and water than vertebrate livestock. Crickets even require less water than most kinds of plant-based protein. Growing one pound of almonds require 1,929 gallons of water. Growing one pound of lentils require 704 gallons. One pound of cricket requires <drumroll please> 1/2 gallon of water. And don’t forget greenhouse gases. Crickets aren’t running tiny furnaces inside of their bodies to stay warm, which means they don’t fart as much as warm-blooded livestock. And let's not forget about land use. Crickets can fit into small spaces; cows, not so much.
What do I suggest then? Become a cricket farmer. Small is beautiful. Do it yourself! Supplement your diet with crickets, while sharing your home with a fascinating creature that will fill your heart with songs and your mind with cool thoughts about animal behavior, evolution, cultural taboos and insect sex.
All you need is :
A container (I bend sheet cardboard into a tube, see picture)
Some housing material (I use egg flats that I pick up from outside of bakeries)
Food (I feed my crickets oat bran, flax meal, and veggie scraps, though I plan on shifting to an entirely waste-stream diet soon)
Water (crickets drown easily, so I often use a shallow dish with rice in it when they’re small)
& some kind of heating element if your house runs cold.
I’ll be authoring something more thorough about home cricket farming in the future. Until then, stay in touch with me via my poorly-updated website : www.cricketfarm.org or my more frequently updated instagram : www.instagram.com/bkcrickets or email me at : firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author
Adam Brody has been farming crickets in his Brooklyn apartment since 2016. His cricket project explores inter-species relationships, crickets as an accessible and environmentally low-impact food source, and the therapeutic benefit of cricket songs. He performs music with his crickets along with fellow cricket farmer Jude Tallichet. Brody has presented his crickets at The Free Library of Philadelphia, Spring Sessions Residency, The Jordan National Gallery of Fine Art, Dixon Place and Open Source Gallery. You can more about his work at: www.adamchadbrody.com.
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Otte, D. 1992. Evolution of Cricket Songs. Journal of Orthoptera Research 1: 25–49.
Pener, M.P. 2016. Allergy to Crickets: A Review. Journal of Orthoptera Research 25: 91–95. https://doi.org/10.1665/034.025.0208
Resh, V.H. & R.T. Cardé. 2009. Encyclopedia of Insects. Academic Press. p. 232. ISBN 978-0-08-092090-0