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Orthoptera Conservation

According to the latest version of the Orthoptera Species File, the order Orthoptera comprises more than 25,920 species of grasshoppers and crickets worldwide, whilst the Fauna Europaea Project lists 1097 species as occurring in Europe. Of these European species, nearly half occur on the Balkan Peninsula making it a European hotspot for Orthoptera, including many rare and endemic species, whilst Bulgaria alone boasts 213 species of grasshoppers and crickets.

Grasshoppers and crickets are conspicuous diurnal insects that are often abundant in both natural as well as anthropogenic landscapes, and it is for this reason that many people consider Orthoptera in general as pests. However, abundance doesn’t necessarily mean that grasshoppers and crickets as a whole should be seen as environmentally harmful, in fact on the contrary, they are a what Paine (1969) defines as keystone species whose 'individual populations are the keystone of the community’s structure, and the integrity of the community and its unaltered persistence through time, that is its stability, are determined by their activities and abundances.'

As Paine (1995) later went on to emphasize, the keystone concept is 'intended to convey a sense of nature’s dynamic fragility and the unsuspected consequences of removing (or adding) species.' In other words, remove key species such as grasshoppers and crickets, and the ecosystem as a whole will collapse as would an arch were its keystone to be removed. Indeed, Orthoptera fulfill a key role in grassland biodiversity and provide a vital source of food for many other animals including mammals, birds, reptiles, spiders and mantids.

Unfortunately, despite their importance, and despite being one of the most intensively studied groups of insects in Europe, the Orthoptera are yet another group of invertebrates that until recently have not been the subject of sufficient conservation interest or concern. To use the words of the Victorian naturalist William Cole (1905), writing in Edward Buxton’s book Epping Forest, 'the Crickets (Gryllidae) and the Grasshoppers (Acridiidae) must be left to chirp their own praises'. However, an IUCN Grasshopper Specialist Group has now been formed and this is currently working on a European Red List to assess the status of all the Orthoptera species in Europe.

According to Hoekstra (1998): 'When seeking support for conservation of Orthoptera, the principal challenge is to overcome cultural preconceptions… The preconception of Orthoptera as pests may be the greatest challenge to overcome.' However, despite the pest status of certain species, grasshoppers and crickets do have an advantage over many other species of invertebrates, their popularity with children. With their abilities to jump and to stridulate (or ‘sing’), grasshoppers and crickets are, for many children, some of the most fascinating, comical and popular insects. If carefully harnessed, this popularity amongst children can be used as the perfect foundation for Orthoptera conservation and education projects.