The great furry leaves of the giant South American rhubarb glow in the glorious sunshine under a perfect sky, and the air is alive with that magical sound – cheep cheep, cheep cheep – of chirping crickets. Welcome, of course, to suburban Oxford.
“I just chucked them down there,” says Daniel Emlyn-Jones, a 40-year-old plant scientist, pointing to a bush near the fence of his narrow garden in a fairly typical Oxford street.
Two weeks ago he ordered 500 crickets from an online reptile centre, hoping to bring some sweet music to his extraordinary tropical garden, and also to fill the gap that has been left in his life by his now deceased pet tarantula. It has worked. Close your eyes and listen and you can see a fireball sun drop beneath the African savannah. Or if not that, at least the shimmering surface of some terrible Greek hotel swimming pool in those enchanted hours immediately after darkness, and hopefully before anyone’s thrown up.
His letter to The Independent, published on 26 July, has drawn quite a response from our readers. Unfortunately, most of Daniel’s little beasts promptly legged it into next door’s more traditional English garden, where the patio is unencumbered by giant South American rhubarb, and they lie there and bake, occasionally having to scarper from the “inquisitive” cats.
Though you can hear their chirping sound reverberate from far and near, they’re almost impossible to set eyes on. “They’re very good at hiding,” admits Daniel.
Luckily, the neighbours don’t mind a bit. “It’s lovely sitting out and listening to them,” says Mike from next door. “It lets you imagine you’re in a foreign country. At night, when you’re going to sleep, it’s very relaxing.”
Eventually he spots one in the hedge and brings it round for inspection. I was expecting a little green grasshopper-type thing, but this is jet black, and about two inches long. It is a Mediterranean cricket. Gryllus bimaculatus. It looks like an evil little insect. It is an evil little insect, actually. When there’s no other food to be found, the heartless things will waste no time in tucking into their brothers and sisters, going to some length to identify the weakest ones.
Only the males make the chirping noise, technically known as stridulation. It is their mating call, but it’s not made through rubbing their legs together, as many believe. Rather, each wing has a long set of teeth at the bottom, like a comb, which it rubs against the flat surface of the other wing; the wings are held up and open, enabling the creatures to broadcast the sound to whomever they hope is listening.
“Sometimes you’ll see two of them up on the top of the fence,” Daniel says. “One clearly the pursuer, the other the pursued. He’ll sort of flutter his wings at her, but she never looks impressed. I’ve not seen any of them make what you might call progress.”
At night he says the calling is much louder and more prolonged. “That’s when they mate, I think. During the day I think the noises are more territorial.”
He’s right. There are, in fact, four distinct chirps. A loud calling song to attract females and scare off other males (think Justin Timberlake); a quiet courting song deployed when a lady cricket is near (Barry White); an aggressive song triggered by the presence of another male (think Mel Gibson in Braveheart); and a final, very short, post-copulatory ditty.
Unsurprisingly, they are no respecters of the garden fence. Two weeks later and it’s clear from the noises in the air that many have taken up home several gardens away, but Daniel’s had no complaints yet. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he says. “I thought they might only hang around for a couple of days. But it’s as loud now as it was two weeks ago.”
He doesn’t think they’ve done any damage, nor do they pose any environmental risk. When food is abundant they prefer to eat vegetable matter. Daniel’s been leaving muesli out for them, which apparently they love.
With a lifespan of one to two months, they will only ever be a summer pet, and they couldn’t handle the British winter in any case. He has spotted several being carted off by blackbirds. But such a fate is not too bad. They are only sold by reptile centres as feed for pet lizards and the like. These ones have quite a nice life by comparison.
“The idea of keeping crickets for their songs is rooted in ancient Chinese and Japanese culture,” Daniel says. “But I didn’t want to cage them, but let them be free.”
Daniel paid £40 for his 1,000 crickets, and if they carry on transforming this so-far most wondrous of summers into something even more blissful, then that’s cheap at the price. And on these balmy days, they even have their practical uses. According to Dolbear’s Law, as published in the 1897 article “The Cricket as a Thermometer”, by Amos Dolbear, an American inventor with far too much time on his hands, counting the number of times a cricket chirps in a minute will tell you its body temperature. It being a cold-blooded creature, this can then be used to calculate the ambient temperature.
On the other hand, you could just have a cold beer and a snooze.