The musical mystery of the katydid.
It rises up as darkness falls in sultry later summer: a ratcheting, back-and-forth racket that fills the night air, mingling with the trill of crickets and the background hum of air conditioners. It ushers us through the dog-day season, the soundtrack to accompany back-porch dinners of ripe tomatoes and sweet corn. Pulsing from the treetops into the still, velvety-thick texture of an August night, the chorus is the song of the common true katydid, an insect that looks a lot like a leaf with legs and sounds unforgettably like summer.
There are more than 250 species of katydids in North America, a number of which can be found here in Virginia. All the species belong to the insect family Tettigonioidea and are further distinguished by subfamilies that include the true katydids, meadow katydids, shieldback katydids, coneheaded katydids and, for some I’m-sure-it-makes-sense-if-you’re-an-entomologist reason, the subfamily known as “false” katydids (“to distinguish them from the true katydids” seems to be the best explanation on offer for the name). Browsing the species list is an entertaining exploration of the marriage of literalism and whimsy: sword-bearing conehead, diabolic shieldback, extinct katydid (is that a name or a fate?), virtuoso katydid (known for its complex song) and the apparently unassuming modest katydid (a Virginia-dwelling species, of course, because haven’t we always held brash self-importance to be a breach of decorum right up there with wearing white after Labor Day?).
Without delving further into the finer points of katydid taxonomy (about which even entomologists are not all in agreement), we will nevertheless note here that katydids are related to crickets and grasshoppers and share with them the qualities of long, bent back legs and lengthy front antennae. Less scientifically, katydids are grouped with crickets and cicadas under the heading of “singing insects,” although “singing” here would be a term applied in the broadest sense to a cacophonous arthropod orchestra of clicks, whirrs, zzzzts, trills, tat-tat-tats, buzzings and something remarkably like the chhh-chhh-chhh of a pulsating garden sprinkler.
The loudest insect song in North America is, in fact, produced by a katydid known as the robust conehead, which sounds rather like an electronic device gone seriously on the fritz. But in Virginia it is the common true katydid whose song may be most familiar. Because the true katydid is nocturnal, treetop-dwelling, leaf-colored and a poor flyer (if dislodged, it will flutter to the ground then crawl to the nearest tree and climb up), this insect is one you’re more likely to identify by ear than by sight, but chances are good that if you’ve been outside near some trees on a summer night in the Old Dominion, you’ve heard common true katydids singing. There’s a lot of them, and they’re not easy to miss.
Entomologist Dr. Art Evans (whom central Virginia residents may recognize as the expert voice from the entertaining WCVE public radio weekly feature “What’s Bugging You”), says that groups of these katydids will often engage in a kind of call-and-response. “They will respond to one another,” he says. “you can hear them ‘talking’ back and forth with each other in the trees.” They sing with their wings (by rubbing their forewings together) and, says Evans, they listen with their legs: “They have hearing organs on their front tibia,” he explains.
You wonder they don’t deafen each other; when you think about how big a katydid is (not very) and how insubstantial its wings, it’s impressive what a decided racket these insects can make. You can hear the common true katydid singing throughout most of the eastern half of the U.S. during those dog days (or rather nights) of summer, though interestingly, the insects’ song actually varies by region, according to Evans (who notes that only the males actually sing).
It’s the song of the common true katydid, by the way, that is the source of the insect’s name. Somewhere, sometime, somebody decided that the sound which filled the night air was an endless debate: “Katy did. Katy didn’t.” Exactly what Katy did (or didn’t) we are free to speculate. I imagine Katy as a high-spirited girl of perhaps 12, prone to lively high jinks along the lines of slipping frogs into her sisters’ beds. One legend puts Katy down for a broken heart and a double-murder, with a chorus of insect accusers. There’s a story to serve up with your succotash.
And when you do, tell it on a summer twilight, with a cold glass of sweet tea in your hand, sitting on a glider on your grandmother’s back porch, as the sky fades to black and the first fireflies wink to light in the grass, and high overhead in the trees, the orchestra warms up for another evening’s performance.