Lubbers on the Loose

The Grasshopper that almost ate Chicago

eastern lubber grasshopper

An eastern lubber grasshopper at Cypress Creek Natural Area near Jupiter in Palm Beach County. Seemingly harmless, but deadly in the hands of bad film makers.

It was all Peter Graves’s fault.

In the late 1950s, a swarm of gigantic grasshoppers devoured the tiny town of Ludlow, Ill., and ate its 150 human inhabitants. Graves created the monsters while doing experiments with atomic radiation.

The grasshoppers had eaten some vegetables that had grown to gigantic size after Graves irradiated them, and had grown to gigantic size themselves as a result. After dining on Ludlow, the swarm threatened to snack on Chicago until Graves, desperate to redeem himself, figured out a way to lure them into Lake Michigan where they would simultaneously freeze to death and drown.

That is the preposterous plot of one the worst movies all time, The Beginning of the End. And yes, we’re talking about Peter Graves of Mission Impossible TV fame.

Graves played the role of Dr. Ed Wainwright, an agricultural scientist. experimenting with atomic radiation as a way to increase crop yields.. Other members of the cast included the sultry Audrey Ames, playing intrepid reporter Peggie Castle, and Morris Ankrum, a lawyer and economist turned actor, who played John Hanson, the square-jawed Army general whose job it is to take out the hoppers.

But the real stars of the movie were 12 lubber grasshoppers. With a budget estimated to be only about $100,000, the folks making the movie quickly figured out that they couldn’t afford fancy special effects, so they used real grasshoppers.

Most grasshoppers wouldn’t sit still for the camera, but lubbers, a species common in Florida and the Southeast, were the perfect choice for the job because they’re large, maybe two inches long, and slow-moving. Their stubby wings are too short for flight, they can’t jump and they barely walk so they weren’t likely to suddenly leap off the set.

And lubbers really are deadly creatures, just not in the way Hollywood portrayed them. Well, almost deadly creatures.

If you’re a large, immobile bug — lubber means clumsy — you’ve got limited options as to how you defend yourself. You aren’t going to out quick predators, but you can use color no matter how slow you are. A cousin to lubbers, the Florida true katydid also can’t fly so it defends itself by being inconspicuous as possible. They’re bright green and leaf-shaped, perfectly built to blend in to whatever plant they’re sitting on.

Lubbers do the opposite. They hang out in the open and their striking colors — blacks, yellows, oranges and reds — shout their presence, almost daring a hungry bird to eat them. If one does, they won’t eat another. Lubbers are poisonous and most birds eating will become deathly sick. Not sick enough to actually die, just wished they had. And that’s the intent. They won’t eat another lubber, and they won’t feed it to their offspring. One dies, others live.

The bright colors serve as a warning, something scientists call aposematic coloration.

Bottom line: Color is an important way animals defend themselves but not always in the way we think. Oh and lubbers aren’t likely to eat your town.

But back to the movie. The production crew ordered 200 lubbers from Texas for the movie, but when the shipment reached the California state line, government inspectors had to inspect the grasshoppers to make sure only male lubbers were allowed in. That culled the herd, so to speak.

The idea that the grasshoppers might need to eat while they were being shipped apparently slipped through the cracks, so the lubbers started to eat each other. By the time they were needed for the movie, 200 became 12. You’ll notice the lack of a swarm in the movie, a single grasshopper staring into a window here, three climbing a building there, at most.

The Beginning of the End was part of a trend of making apocalyptic movies based on the supposed effects of atomic radiation that began with Them! in 1954. In that movie, ants in New Mexico were exposed to radiation during atomic bomb testing and grew to gigantic size. Them! is somewhat more kindly remembered by critics and film historians, but The Beginning of the End can boast about one thing: the movie’s special effects actually received a nomination for an Oscar. It didn’t win.

— David Sedore

Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.
Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.