Dr. Holly Menninger loves to talk science. Trained as an entomologist, a scientist who studies bugs, Dr. Menninger pursued an interest communicating scientific research and education to a broad public audience. She now works as the director of public science at Your Wild Life, a diverse team that explores the natural world from an everyday perspective, such as the insects that live in your house. By exploring this topic, a new citizen science project developed – The Camel Cricket Census.
You were talking to people about what lived in their houses and a common response was camel crickets?
We started incorporating survey questions for other projects asking people to tell us what lives in their houses. It was an open field so people could list whatever they wanted. And it was crazy. Some people would list 20 different things from their dogs to houseplants to the roly polies in the basement. It was an extensive list.
The thing that kept popping up was Camel Crickets. I remember when I was in graduate school the house where I lived had a basement that was infested with them. I didn’t think they were that interesting. We wanted to get rid of them.
Based on the response from the surveys from Your Wild Life that found they were so common, we developed a formal program around them and asked people specifically if they had camel crickets. If they did we asked them to please send us pictures.
By far the Asian species was the most common. Every once and a while we’d get a native species, which is a different genus. They are built more like tanks. They’re darker and they have big spines on their back legs. The Asian species are very leggy and delicate looking and look almost striped. They don’t have spines on their back legs so they’re really easy to tell apart even in a fuzzy photograph.
We recently launched the website crickets.yourwildlife.org. You can upload photos to let us know if camel crickets really are widely distributed. Turns out there’s a lot we don’t know about them.
What is known about them?
They’ve been reported in the scientific literature as pests in greenhouses. I think that characterization is a little odd. I don’t think they eat plants, I think they eat the dead stuff that falls to the ground and other bugs. And they scare people. Unlike most crickets they don’t chirp by moving their wings back and forth. They’re wingless, and therefore silent, and they’re super jumpy. They’re fearless and will get in your face if you get too close to them.
I really want to talk to people like electricians and plumbers, the people who get under your house. I talk to them at outreach events and they have a specific memory of when they started seeing them in houses in Raleigh.
No one really knows what they eat and this topic relates to our other projects like the Arthropods of Our Homes where we’re trying to understand the food web inside a house. We have colleagues at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences who went into 50 houses in the Triangle and collected insects and their kin. They found tons of Asian crickets.
We definitely need more pictures to ID the species and need folks across North America to share their observations. We identified a bunch on the west coast but not much from the middle of the country, west of the Mississippi.
We thought this project would be a great way to shine a light on the process of science. How did we go from an idea, an observation, to creating a hypothesis, to answering the hypothesis, to publishing that study in the current scientific literature. We’re using this data set to discuss that process.
To learn more about this program, check out Camel Cricket Census.