The Jerusalem cricket; ugly, but harmless

It’s wonderful to recall boyhood events with my friend, Frankie, when we lived in Raton.

One Saturday morning when we were age 10, our objective was to find gold in arroyos near the foothills of our homes. Our method was to use a twig to remove fist-sized stones from the banks of arroyos and examine each stone to detect the presence or absence of gold.

Frankie and I were moving along an arroyo, quite patient in our gold-hunting pursuit. When as I dislodged a stone, the ugliest critter I ever observed fell downwards to my shirt tail, then to my pant leg, and to the ground. Out of surprise and fear, I fell backward and landed on my rear at the bottom of the arroyo. The critter and I were both on the ground staring at one another.

Finally, after a few moments I used my twig tool to tease the cricket harmlessly. Frankie and I both watched it bite the twig and grab it with its legs.

Soon I began to wonder how I could take it home alive — plastic bags were not invented. Mom saved all her jars for canning, and Dad used all the coffee cans to store nails, bolts and screws. Having no solution, I stood up, dusted by pants, and sadly walked away from the critter as Frankie and I continued our search for gold.

I knew, however, that I would remember the critter’s appearance long enough to do a literature search at the Raton library.

My visit to the library was fruitless. Later, having had numerous contacts with Jerusalem crickets and access to a wealth of literature, I am now able to describe the small harmless insect. It is about one inch in length and distinguished by an oversized head, which is tan in color. Its narrow midsection is without wings. The large fat, black abdomen behind the midsection is encircled with narrow yellow bands.

Those features have given the cricket a bad rap, especially the large head, which gives an ugly appearance to the cricket and causes individuals to believe it is venomous. It is not venomous, but it does have a painful bite.

Unfortunately, the insect’s appearance has been the subject of fear and superstition, especially to early settlers of the Southwest. Many of their dwellings had adobe walls and dirt floors, both excellent habitats for the cricket.

Now, the subject of real interest is why the cricket is commonly called the Jerusalem cricket. It is native to western United States, Mexico and middle America. Jerusalem, on the other hand, is in the Middle East across the Atlantic Ocean from the American countries.

There are several explanations for the cricket’s name, but David B. Weissman (Department of Entomology, California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco) stated that the best one comes from a novel written by Richard L. Doutt. Doutt stated that the answer to the puzzle comes from the jargon used by young boys during the 19th Century, when Jerusalem was a common swear word used when startled by a natural event, such as the sudden appearance of the ugly cricket.

Later Jerusalem and cricket became associated with each other verbally, either during surprise encounters or regular conversation. And, those words appeared together for the first time in the scientific literature in 1905.

Now reverting back to my experience, as I landed abruptly on the seat of my pants at the bottom of the arroyo, I simply yelled, “Wow, Frankie, come here, and hurry!”

Desert Biologist Tony Gennaro of Portales writes a monthly column on creatures of the Southwest. Contact him at: tonygennaro_08@msn.com

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