The little critter seen here is surely one of nature's more inventive productions - the mole cricket. It looks like a standard issue cricket from body to tail, but sports a shovel-like head and articulated, clawed forelegs for digging, the reason behind the crested tunnels that crisscross your lawns in late summer. They are prodigious diggers, feeding on turf roots and worms, and are the bane of landscapers and golf course maintenance crews.
Although they appear all over the world, mole crickets are most common in coastal areas like ours. Only one of the three varieties encountered here is native to South Carolina; the other two are invasive and probably first arrived during the 19th century in the ballast of cargo ships from South America. These two non-native species - the southern mole cricket and the tawny mole cricket - were first detected in the late 1800's and early 1900's in port cities like Charleston, Brunswick, Georgia and Mobile, Alabama.
The tawny mole cricket is the largest of the three types, at up to two-inches when mature, and is considered the most destructive, although its smaller cousins can also damage lawns and carefully tended turf. The insects develop from eggs laid by females during an early spring mating season, when males dig sound chambers with holes at the surface to amplify their mating calls. The same males and females often return to the same location to mate, which is why you may notice tunneling in the same areas of your lawn each year. The larva emerge in about three weeks, molt up to eight times during the late spring and early summer and reach the adult stage by August, when serious lawn damage begins to appear and continues into October. Cooler weather slows the activity, and by December the insects retreat to deeper soil levels to overwinter.
Fortunately, mole crickets reproduce only once a year and can be managed, if not eradicated, with a variety of insecticides applied during the late spring and early summer, before major damage occurs. And in some parts of the world, mole crickets are not viewed so negatively. In certain parts of Africa, mole crickets are considered a sign of good fortune and in drought-prone areas, as a sign of coming rain. In southeast Asia, they're considered a great delicacy, served fried over rice.