Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Four-spotted Tree Crickets: more tales from the terrarium

Continuing with my Tales from the Terrariums, I’d like to tell you about the Four-spotted Tree Crickets that have lived in our house.  They’re very common meadow residents in Ohio, and chances are excellent you've heard them.
The first Four-spotted Tree Cricket I brought home was on 10-25-12 - the day before Superstorm Sandy's impact on Cleveland. He was the only tree cricket I that was still singing, and I located him on a brown Queen Anne's Lace seed head. I knew he would not survive what was coming his way.

I’d never had an indoor tree cricket. I set up a large terrarium with some grasses, small asters, and seeds that I know Four-spotteds eat and hoped this would work out for him.

My first attempt at creating tree cricket habitat in the house was a success! He sang every day through early December, and it was beautiful to have his songs filling the house. The photo at the beginning of this post was one I took of this cricket singing in the terrarium on 11-20-12. Below is a recording I made of him on 12-6-12.

This year’s large terrarium has hosted several crickets and katydids at different times, as was also the case last year. The Four-spotteds were the last to move in – two males and a female. I thought I only had two Four-spotteds, but later discovered that a third was hiding in the vegetation I’d scooped up for the car ride home. 

As is the case at the end of the season, they were old when they got here and I knew there was no guarantee of how long they’d live. One of the two males never sang and lived for less than a week. The other male and the female settled right in and lived through the end of November.

The male had a curious brown spot on his wing; perhaps it was an injury, as it never got larger. 

He was rather battered and certainly old, but he sang quite well. (You may also hear a little of the very loud Broad-winged Tree Cricket singing in another terrarium located in a different room.)

His antennae had been chopped short by some kind of trauma earlier in his life.

Antennae are extremely important sensory appendages for crickets and katydids. Have you ever watched how they constantly touch everything with them? They are reading the environment around them. When I do public programs outdoors, I always teach people how to carefully and gently catch these insects so that the antennae do not get damaged. I’d rather miss an opportunity than injure them.

Fortunately for him, this cricket seemed to manage quite well with his antenna stubs. I expect it was easier for him in the terrarium that out in the meadow. All he really had to contend with was that annoying Black-horned Tree Cricket featured in my last post, and he was not intimidated whatsoever.

Why are they "Four-spotted Tree Crickets," (Oecanthus quadripunctatus)? There are the four spots in a very specific pattern at the base of each antenna. Both the female and the male posed perfectly on the underside of the terrarium screen to make these visible. Here's a photo of the female:

One additional characteristic I noticed is that both the male and the female seemed to be very flexible, as if they had more freedom of movement between the thorax and the abdomen. Usually when I watch tree crickets moving around the terrarium, I don't see side to side movement between the thorax and abdomen. With the Four-spotteds, it also appeared that they moving their heads from side to side.

See you if notice something similar in the upcoming photo of the female as well as in other photos of the male. I'm not sure this is something I can observe in the field, so I'll want to get more photos if another Four-spotted is in residence here next year.

When a Broad-winged Tree Cricket moved in to his own terrarium a week or two later, it was an excellent opportunity to compare the songs of the Four-spotted and the Broad-winged. Both species can be heard in the same meadow, and both sing long, continuous trills. 

The Broad-winged’s songs are lower in pitch – anywhere from a minor 3rd to a perfect 4th  - but the pitch of all crickets will become lower as the temperature drops. I listen for the intervallic relationship between species when I’m out in the field, as both Four-spotted and Black-horned tree crickets will typically sing a major or minor 3rd higher than the Broad-wingeds.

Here’s both the Four-spotted and the Broad-winged singing a minor third apart in their terrariums. You'll be able to hear that the Broad-winged's pitch is lower, and this is what it looks like on the sonogram.

The most delightful sound of all occurred when the Four-spotted, Broad-winged and Snowy Tree Crickets were all singing on their separate pitches. Listen for the three difference pitches as I moved around the kitchen and dining room.

The Four-spotted is the highest, with the Broad-winged in the middle and the rhythmic pulse of the Snowy the lowest of the three species. One evening, the pitches of the three actually formed a major triad.

The female Four-spotted was a very interesting house guest as well.

I actually watched her oviposit on November 8th in a blackberry cane in the terrarium! Follow the angle of her abdomen, and look for the ovipositor (which appears to be the same color as the blackberry cane).

There are little aster plants in the terrarium, but they probably were not substantial enough for her. The cane still remains next to those little asters in the terrarium, which will ultimately overwinter on the back porch. I could also place the cane in the bed of asters outside the back door.  Are there eggs in it? If so, will they hatch? I don’t know!

On November 16th, I noticed some unexpected interactions underway on the top of the terrarium screen. Was this the beginning of courtship behavior right here in the kitchen? But it was a work day and I was on my way to my first class at 8:30! I was so conflicted. I wanted so much to see how this was going to develop, but really could not delay my departure. I had to be satisfied with a few quick photos.

Although both the male and the female became a little more yellow with age, they were quite active and lived until the very end of November. Tree cricket songs in the house in November - and even December – are a delight, and watching crickets interact feels like a privilege. Perhaps this post is my “thank you” to them. 

I’ll close with the Four-spotted male’s last night of song and photo of him from earlier that evening. The large terrarium and my recording equipment were up in the bedroom, as I’d been recording the old Snowy Tree Cricket’s dry, scratchy, late-night songs that he seems to sing at 2:30 - 3:00 AM.  Around 3:30 AM on 11-29, the Four-spotted started singing beautifully in the warm, dark bedroom, and I quietly recorded his song without disturbing him.  

I did not see him or hear him sing again. 


  1. Great stuff, Lisa! I'll have to check out the movements you describe for 4-spotted tree crickets next summer.

  2. Wonderful post Lisa. What a great story and to have recorded the last song from the Four-spotted is priceless.

  3. So moving-- I'm awed by your respect for ans observations of these oft overlooked insects.

  4. Beautiful and inspiring work. Thank you for sharing it with us!