To many townsfolk, the only exposure they will have to grasshoppers are those TV images of some macho bushman eating them in an attempt at 'survival'. To rural folk, they are a traditional form of nutritious food - as they have been long before John the Baptist is reported eating them in the desert.
The term 'locust' is normally applied to the brown locust (Locustana pardalina) and the red locust (Nomadacris septemfasciata) when they undergo a physical change during periodic migratory swarms. Ranging is size from 10 to 100 millimetres, the hundreds of species have colours and shapes adapted to almost every habitat.
They are classified under the order ORTHOPTERA, which includes the crickets and katydids. The order is divided into two groups according to length of antennae: - the short-horned grasshoppers and locusts (with sound-producing organs on the hind legs) and long-horned crickets and katydids (which sing by means of organs on the wings, and have 'ears' on the forelegs). Short-horned grasshoppers lay many eggs in a pod in the soil.
Grasshoppers are arranged in eight families, the largest of which is Acrididae, with 356 species in 13 sub-families. While producing a rich source of protein for many animals, including humans, not all grasshoppers are edible - and some are certainly toxic.
My own assessment is that if they have an active means of escape, they are edible, but if they are sluggish and rely on 'scare tactics', they have some hidden protection and are best left alone.
There are 39 known species in the family PYROMORPHIDAE and the reader will probably be familiar with the large, khaki-green, 'stink locusts' often found in gardens.
There are nine known species in the genus Phymateus, with two species of the black and red Dictyophorus (koppie foam grasshopper) and two species of the smooth-shelled and colourful Zonocerus (elegant grasshopper).
Like many others in the order, species in this family lay hundreds of eggs in pods in the soil. On hatching, the dark coloured nymphs, possibly not having the protection of toxins at this stage, cluster together for safety.
As the nymphs grow they disperse and develop vivid yellow and black colouration as a warning to predators. The adults take on cryptic colouration but develop wings (males longer than females) with vivid colours that they can flash as a warning. They also exude a toxic foam from the thoracic joints.
The adult foam grasshoppers feed, for preference, on milkweed (Asclepias spp) and other similar plants. The milkweed, which has been introduced from Australia, contains toxic heart glycosoids (the same as Moraea and Homeria spp).
The grasshoppers ingest these toxins which they exude in a foam from their thoracic joints for their own protection when threatened. Human and animal fatalities are known to have occurred from ingesting these grasshoppers.
The well-documented swarming locusts - Nomadacris septemfaciata (red locust) and Locustana pardalina (brown locust) - that cause periodic destruction of vegetation, are the historic edibles. Other large grasshoppers to be found in our area are - the green tree locust (Cyrtacanthacris aeruginosa) - and the garden locust (Acanthacris ruficornis).
The camouflaged tree locust (Anacridium moestum), is similar to the cryptic rain locust (genus Lamarckiana - with 20 species), which is the creature that makes the familiar, loud, 'churrring' call from trees during the rainy season.
All these species are around 100 millimetres in length and, apart from the wingless females, are highly mobile. These and many of the smaller species of grasshopper are still traditionally harvested as a high protein food supplement. Roast some and try - but make sure they are the edible ones.