Man studies and records sweet sounds of insects

November 08, 2004|by DON AINES

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - The hills are alive with the sound of music for Wil Hershberger, particularly the nocturnal serenades of the singing orthopterans.

"It sounds like a group," Hershberger, of Hedgesville, W.Va., said Sunday at the Charles Brightbill Environmental Center. They are, in fact, a group of mostly plant-eating insects that includes crickets, grasshoppers and katydids.

For the past three years, Hershberger has been collaborating with Lange Elliott of Ithaca, N.Y., on "Songs of Insects," a book and CD he says should be ready for publication next year. During that time, he has taken photographs and recorded the sounds of these insects for the project.


Hershberger, whose day job is with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Fruit Research Station in Kearneysville, W.Va., has spent many a summer night tracking down his subjects with a digital audio tape recorder and camera.

"I guess I've been kind of a shutterbug since high school," Hershberger said. About 10 years ago, he said he became interested in natural sound recording, beginning with birds.

Hershberger, who was at the center Sunday as one of the judges of the Tuscarora Wildlife Education Project's third annual nature photography contest, brought with him a copy of his CD "Songs of Crickets and Katydids of the Mid-Atlantic States." The recording contains the songs of about 40 species, he said, while the book he and Elliott are working on will feature about 70 species.

"There is a fine line between passion and obsession," said his wife, Donna. She admitted to not being very fond of insects at one time, but "when you have bugs in your refrigerator, you become a convert very quickly."

The microphotography of insects has been a learning experience, Wil Hershberger said. Over the years, he has learned to tune his ear for the distinct sound of each insect he seeks.

Although most orthopterans sing at night, Hershberger said finding them is a fairly straightforward process. Using a flashlight, "you just scan around until you see antennae," usually poking out from the underside of a leaf.

Getting his subjects to cooperate for a portrait is another matter.

"Originally, we tried cooling them in the refrigerator," but that often left the insects somewhat lethargic, he said. Placing them on vegetation works well, but for shots against a white background, he often starts by placing them under a Tupperware container to let them bounce around for a while.

"We just tire them out," he said.

Now and then, an insect gives them the slip inside their home, Donna Hershberger said. When one got away last year, they had to wait until dark to track it down by its chirp.

The world of singing insects is a mostly male bastion in which females may respond, if at all, with a click or rasp to the romantic wing-rubbing of suitors, according to Hershberger. In the case of the common virtuoso katydid, colonies of which Hershberger has found near his home, the song can last as long as 30 seconds.

Recordings of musical bugs are not likely to challenge the sales of either The Beatles or Buddy Holly and the Crickets, but Hershberger says there is a market, mostly among naturalists and researchers and bird and butterfly watchers looking to expand their horizons.

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