A katydid makes itself at home (ours)

Insects occasionally invade our home, and our customary response is "Now you've gotten yourself just a little too close, Mister. Out you go!" But the pale spring-green katydid who mysteriously showed up in our kitchen last week has been cordially invited to stay. This relative of crickets and grasshoppers isn't an invader. He's a house guest!

He may have entered during that minute I left the screen door open last Monday. I went out to briefly water the chrysanthemums. But it's possible he slipped in through the crack that has developed in our doorjamb. Anyway, he's here, and we've been worrying about his meals.

What do katydids eat? Oh yes, leaves off bushes. But this hardly seems proper food for royalty, which he certainly is.

I phoned Vincent Lee, an esteemed entomologist at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. We fell into earnest conversation about "Bartholomew," the affectionate name we gave our insect friend. "I've been known to give names to a few especially endearing insects," Dr. Lee said, and chortled. (My kind of entomologist!)

My wife, Janislee, was the first to sight this handsome insect. Though in the garden he might be nearly invisible in his pastel-green camouflage, she easily found him inside the house. He was walking with deliberate steps across a framed picture of a castle on our dining-room wall.

A day later, Janislee called to me from the kitchen. "Quickly!" she said. "Bartholomew's eating our lima beans!" I ran to see the cheeky fellow standing on the edge of a small bowl of leftovers. Firmly gripping the edge, he had tipped his body close to one bean and was dining on it.

I reported this to Dr. Lee. "Oh yes," he said. "I suppose we shouldn't be surprised that he will seek nourishment from most anything you leave out, since he can't find his usual food. What other enticing fare have you included on his menu?"

"Right now," I answered, "he's enjoying a banana. I left a small bit for him this morning. Last evening, Janislee found him nibbling a piece of raw carrot that she left on the drain board. He's like a goat who might consume anything!"

The entomologist laughed. "Some creatures are more adaptable to the vicissitudes of life than most humans," he said. "But this one of yours does seem to be less fussy about his food than most. I'm making some notes about your friend as we talk. Do you think you might call me back with a further description? I'd like to be certain it's a katydid we're discussing."

"I'm just three inches from him now," I said, "as he's finishing up that banana morsel. What an appetite!"

"Ah!" said Lee, with increased enthusiasm. "Tell me about his appendages. How long would you say his antennae are? Do you have a magnifying glass nearby?" I had one on my desk, so I reached for it.

Oh my! Through the lens, Bartholomew suddenly appeared like a giant creature in a horror flick. No longer a gentle specimen from nature, he was "Vertog From the Swamps of Planet Mugwort!" His eyes were moon-yellow with black spots. His hopping legs were cantilevered machine parts, capable of launching him a thousand light years into space.

But I tried to sound like a responsible scientist. "I'd say his antennae are about an inch long. Compared with his legs, they're as thin as filaments. I can barely make them out." More poetically than scientifically, I added "They're like tiny wands held by sylvan fairies in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' "

The real scientist on the phone gave this a half-second's appreciation, "Nice," he said, then pushed on. "But what about those legs? Their size and placement?"

Two very short ones in front, two slightly longer farther back, then the two high-jumping launchers. These extended up from his body, perhaps an inch and a half, then bent sharply down from their joints, stretching another inch and a half to the counter top. They had little feet at the tips that I announced to Lee seemed to be attached backwards!

"Yes," he said, "that's a fair way of describing those ingenious parts of a katydid. The feet - yes, let's call them 'feet' - do point in a direction contrary to what we would think appropriate. If you will look very close, you'll see diminutive claws on the feet. These serve him well to get a grip on surfaces. He used them to walk handily across your picture frame."

I mentioned that he had also spent an hour crawling on a pair of reading glasses left on my desk. And - would he believe this? -Bartholomew had spent two nights between the folds of a paper napkin that Janislee had (for fun) pinned to a wall of the kitchen. (The napkin had "Home Sweet Home" printed on it.)

Dr. Lee paused respectfully, then said "I think some things in life cannot necessarily be explained by entomologists."

"One thing more," he said. "Has he made any cricket sounds? If not, you may need to change his name from Bartholomew to Katy. The females don't make those engaging sounds."

Since our talk with the goodly scientist, my wife and I have watched with rising interest as our house guest settles in. We have heard a few cricket trills, so that settles that. He doesn't do much jumping though, as grasshoppers do. Maybe a katydid is too dignified to leap around the house like an out-of-control child. Bartholomew is the picture of dignity as he moves about, inspecting his accommodations. He's not one to offend with raucous behavior. He makes his way from room to room slyly, stealthily. Each step taken by one of his six legs is part of an exquisite orchestration, as in the slow movement of a symphony.

One time though, he did fly at me late at night as I worked at my computer. Yes, katydids fly with wings as well as leap with legs. They thus achieve more distance - up to 10 feet, I'd say. He propelled himself from the wall and bounced off my shoulder, then disappeared into the wastebasket. We were careful not to empty the basket for a couple of days.

He must have been attracted by my gaudy, flowered pajamas, a reminder, perhaps, of one of his ancestor's jungle environments. So he leaped at me. It wasn't overly shocking. We're accustomed to his presence, and his abrupt appearances are no more surprising than seeing a hummingbird hovering at our window. Hopping is natural for him and should certainly be allowed. One doesn't challenge the age-old habits of a valued guest.

Besides, Bartholomew is normally the epitome of grace, refinement, and a wonderful intelligence. We love him, and we hope that he will stay. Last night Janislee put out a fresh lettuce leaf for him.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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