Garden Detective

Garden Detective: Funny-looking insect has many nicknames

Lindsay Langford caught this insect. It’s a Jerusalem or sand cricket, better known by some as the “potato bug.”
Lindsay Langford caught this insect. It’s a Jerusalem or sand cricket, better known by some as the “potato bug.” Special to The Bee

Q: (Recently) Home & Garden had a picture of a cricket. I was raised in Colma, back when there was a lot of empty land just south of San Francisco. We had what looks the same and we called them potato bugs. Is this the same thing?

Barbara Giannini, Rocklin

A: Different nickname, but yes, it’s the same insect, and that “potato bug” nickname may be a better description.

The Jerusalem or sand cricket (Stenopelmatus) isn’t a true cricket – and they’re not from the Middle East. These 2-inch nocturnal critters are native to Mexico and the American Southwest, and are found in many places in Sacramento and Northern California.

According to retired state entomologist Baldo Villegas, “In Mexico, these insects are known as ‘Ninos de la tierra’ – children of the earth – because, to some people, they look like little babies.”

These insects like to eat tubers – such as potatoes – as well as decaying roots and other bugs. During the day, they like to hide under rocks or logs.

Reader Rachel Simas of Thornton knows about Jerusalem crickets firsthand, as well as their appetite for potatoes.

“They love to chew holes in my potato crop!” Simas said. “About a fourth of the potatoes had damage. Whenever I find them, I give them to my chickens. Jerusalem crickets are to chickens what lobster tails are to me – a delicacy!”

Warning on baits

Reader Carol Rubin of Newcastle would like to remind other gardeners of the dangers of using poisoned bait to kill moles and gophers. They can take a larger toll than the intended target.

“I read with great interest your piece on controlling moles and gophers in the Jan. 23 Bee,” she said. “I was surprised though that you recommended baits/poisons as an acceptable control method. Unfortunately, when the target animals get sick from eating the poison, they are easy pickings for raptors, foxes, vultures and other unintended victims who also die.”

Recent research has found that anticoagulant rodenticides (found in many popular brands of rodent killer) can have disastrous effects on hawks, owls and other birds of prey. They’re not safe for dogs or cats either.

When possible, use an alternative to control moles, gophers and rodents.

Garden questions?

Questions are answered by master gardeners at the UC Cooperative Extension services in Sacramento and Placer counties. Send questions to Garden Detective, P.O. Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852. Send email to h&g@sacbee.com. Please put “Garden Detective” in the subject field and include your postal address. To contact UC Extension directly, call:

  • Sacramento: (916) 875-6913; 9 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m. Monday-Thursday
  • Amador: (209) 223-6838; 10 a.m.-noon Monday-Thursday; email ceamador. ucdavis.edu
  • Butte: (530) 538-7201; 8 a.m.-noon and 1-5 p.m. weekdays
  • Colusa: (530) 458-0570; 9 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m. Tuesdays; website: cecolusa.ucanr.edu
  • El Dorado: (530) 621-5512; 9 a.m.-noon Tuesday-Friday
  • Placer: (530) 889-7388; 9 a.m.-noon Tuesday-Thursday or leave a message and calls will be returned; website: pcmg.ucanr.org/got_questions
  • Nevada: (530) 273-0919; 9 a.m.-noon Tuesday-Thursday or leave a message
  • Shasta, Tehama, Trinity: (530) 225-4605
  • Solano: (707) 784-1322; leave a message and calls will be returned
  • Sutter, Yuba: (530) 822-7515; 9 a.m.-noon Monday-Tuesday and 1-4 p.m. Thursdays
  • Yolo: (530) 666-8737; 9-11 a.m. Tuesdays and Fridays, or leave a message and calls will be returned
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