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Potato Bug

Summary: The potato bug is another name for the Jerusalem cricket and should not be confused with the potato beetle.

The Jerusalem cricket is neither from Jerusalem, nor a true cricket. This large insect with a bulbous human-like head is also known by the colorful names woh-tzi-neh (old bald-headed man) by Native Americans and ninos de la tierra (children of the earth) by Mexicans. Another common name is the potato bug, though this should not be confused with the more common potato beetle, a true pest.

The Jerusalem cricket, first described in 1838, is native to North and South America. It is primarily found west of the Rockies along the Pacific coast from Mexico up to British Columbia. It is common in southern California.

This insect grows up to two inches long, with a large, smooth, shiny head; heavy mandibles for chewing and spiny legs adapted for digging in the soil. It is amber to yellow in color, sometimes with a brownish head. The abdomen is striped tan on black. Their foods of choice are decaying vegetable matter, rotting potato tubers and invertebrates.

The Jerusalem cricket is nocturnal, spending days burrowed underground. They are wingless and the heavier ones can't jump. The female has a smaller head but a larger abdomen than the male. He is of a more massive build though she will occasionally eat him after mating. Their life span is one to two years. They are probably snacked on by a variety of wildlife like coyotes, skunks and others, but since they are nocturnal their biggest predator is the owl.

The Jerusalem cricket can use its large head and closed mandibles to help burrow with a hoe-like movement to push the soil aside. A female will burrow down six to ten inches under a rock, log or board, make a right-angle turn and build her nest. She fills it with 1/8 inch long oval white eggs.

One of the fascinating things about this cricket, which distinguishes it from true crickets, is that they lack the typical apparatus to produce or "hear" a sound. It is thought to communicate to some degree through feel and vibrations. They will produce a drumming sound by rhythmically thumping their abdomens against the ground. The drumming pattern varies between species.

They are not considered a pest as they don't generally harm crops. Large congregations of the cricket rarely occur so there is limited agricultural concern. According to the University of Nevada, Reno, Cooperative Extension, the Jerusalem cricket may actually be beneficial as it is thought to reduce the quantity of soil-borne pests, finding larvae especially tasty.

The Jerusalem cricket can be kept fairly easily as a pet. Line a terrarium with a deep layer of sandy soil or loam for burrowing. Provide a board or some large rocks and clumps of grass. They will chew on the roots of the grass but also enjoy eating bread, potato, fruits, meat and other insects. They can bite if provoked but that isn't common and if they do, it isn't dangerous. Some species will emit a foul odor if they feel threatened, but again, it isn't harmful. They are not venomous and have no stinger.

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