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Abundance of bugs shouldn't cause alarm

Venture Out, Mike Leggett

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Somehow they've been stuck with names that label them tools of Satan, and I'm not sure why.

Maybe it's their looks, all legs and long bodies with strange shapes, like something that would be guarding the gates of hell.

But devil's walkingsticks and the praying mantis, or devil's horse, aren't getting the positive press they deserve. That's especially true this year, when walkingstick numbers seem to have skyrocketed.

They are everywhere I go these days. I've seen walkingsticks hanging from the stones over our front door, upside down on barbed wire fences, doing their robot walk across gravel roads and, twice, holding on for dear life to passenger windows of trucks in which I was riding.

With long, thin, semi-segmented-appearing bodies, spidery legs and heads that don't appear to be heads, the walkingsticks are common in Texas, according to Mike Quinn, an entomologist at the University of Texas Brackenridge Field Laboratory.

"As silent herbivores, I don't get a lot of reports on walkingsticks from the general public," Quinn said, "but I'm not actively soliciting comments, either. Generally speaking, I would say the same environmental factors inducing the widespread outbreak of red katydids (last year's drought, mild winter, fairly wet the past sixth months) are also contributing to the abundance of sticks that you are seeing."

Quinn noted that the males are much smaller than females and often can be seen "riding" on the larger sex. There are at least eight species of common walkingsticks in Texas, and even though you'd be hard pressed to find their mouths, they can do serious damage to trees and plants when they're having a big year like this.

"The common walkingstick (Diapheromera femorata) is apparently the only U.S. species that occasionally becomes abundant enough to damage plants," Quinn said. They seem to have an every-other-year population boom in local areas, and some reports indicate they can occur in large enough numbers that it's possible to hear them chewing up the scenery as they feed. They are related to grasshoppers, and the giant walkingstick is the largest insect in North America.

Praying mantises are another insect altogether. We all know them because of their "praying" stance, with forelegs held close to their bodies. They are related to cockroaches and will only feed on prey they have captured themselves.

Austin gardeners know praying mantises by their egg cases, which are prized because the adults can help control garden pests. The young will feed on aphids when they first emerge. I've watched my cousin, for instance, tearing mantis cases off trees while we fished, taking them home to his garden for protection for his prized tomatoes.

Both species are masters of camouflage, using their bodies to mimic twigs and leaves, one to feed on plants and the other to use as ambush sites for other insects.

And finally, I've known about devil's horses and devil's walkingsticks my entire life because I fish. The Smithwick Lure Company has made tens of thousands under both names. The Devil's Horse has propellers that give it a slushing sound in the water, and the Devil's Walking Stick uses the same body without props. It has a weighted rear end that causes it to sit almost vertical in the water and to jump and dart when it's twitched on the line.

Contact Mike Leggett at Twitter: @MikeLeggett1