NEW MARKET, Va. - In the absence of birdsong at this time of year, when the birds go quiet, an altogether new choir appears. Think of it as curtain-raising time for the singing insects.
Crickets and katydids fill the night with the sound of their particular kind of music. Plug cicadas into the dayside programming and you have an around-the-clock insect serenade that grows in volume with summer's end.
Crickets and katydids belong to the order Orthoptera, the so-called canaries of the insect world. This group includes grasshoppers, locusts and walking sticks among an estimated 23,000 additional species. They make music either by rubbing their forewings together or by scraping their hind legs against their forewings or abdomens, a University of Florida fact sheet says.
Cicadas, on the other hand, are members of the order Homoptera, which is characterized by insects with "piercing sucking mouthparts" and "membranous wings held roof-like over the body."
"Cricket songs are musical to the human ear because their carrier frequencies are relatively pure and low," University of Florida entomologists say. "Katydids and cicadas songs sound buzzy, raspy or whiney because their carrier frequencies are less pure and are higher than those of crickets."
Songbirds become less vocal in August and September because they aren't trying to attract mates or defend territory, says Wil Hershberger, a wildlife photographer, naturalist and sound engineer from Hedgesville, W.Va. "(So it's) a natural bridge from birds to singing insects," says Hershberger, who walks the woods and fields recording their sounds for an audio CD to accompany a book he's working on. "If you're an avid naturalist who has to be out there doing something, that's the thing. A whole new orchestra takes to the pit at the end of summer."
Hershberger and a few like-minded audiophiles are using their high-tech gear to capture certain aspects of a cricket loving culture practiced for centuries in China and Japan.
"Many people, including famous poets, painters, musicians and Buddhist monks, were enthusiastic about keeping singing pets. Although it is difficult to determine which is historically correct, with so many high officers and noble lords being among the fans of singing insects, there is no doubt that the keeping of singing insects was regarded as an elegant hobby," according to a report by the Shanghai Institute of Entomology posted on the Internet.
Many wealthy Chinese placed their prized crickets in gold cages or intricate boxes made of wood or bamboo. The serenading insects would be kept in their bedchambers for background music.
You may not be all that crazy about having crickets chirping near your pillows at night but there are things that can be done to bring their songs within earshot. You might try some minimal landscaping, for example.
"Leave grassy areas and that will get you certain kinds of katydids," Hershberger says. "They have a certain kind of sound. If you garden for blackberries, that will get a different kind of sound with crickets. You can partition the (insect singing) niche."
Having water nearby helps the insects survive drought, he says.
Lest you think they're playing only your song, understand that the insects are sending messages similar to those transmitted by nest-building birds in the spring. There are distinctive sounds for courtship, territorial claims and alarms, among others.
"Most of what we hear is calling song, the song that is associated with attracting a mate," Hershberger says. "There are other vocalizations that one can hear such as when males are in a territorial dispute or when a male is close to a female. So a careful listener could discern what the insect is doing by the sounds that they are producing."
More and more people seem to be paying some attention to the concerts.
"If you can go into your backyard or a field or the woods and hear something singing, and say you know that, it gives you a connection," Hershberger says. "(It's) another way of interacting with wildlife and the outdoors."
"Field Guide to Grasshoppers, Katydids, and Crickets of the United States," by John Capinera, Ralph Scott and Thomas Walker. Cornell University Press. 2005. List price: $29.95 in paperback.
On the Net:
For more about singing insects and their ecology, try the University of Florida Department of Entomology Web site: http://buzz.ifas.ufl.edu.