And on this farm he had a cricket, E-I-E-I-O

Breeding crickets is a full-time job. In the pet store, where we have, at most, 20,000 crickets in ten tanks, cleaning and feeding is perhaps a half-hour’s job. (Victoria can do it in fifteen minutes.) But we’re not in the business of breeding crickets. All we have to do is keep them alive until they’re sold. Breeders keep over 100,000 crickets, and they can’t crowd their crickets like that if they want them to breed. They need a lot more space, and have to do a lot more work.

I’ve heard cricket breeders referred to as “cricketeers”. That’s an incredibly light and cheery word for someone who spends his or her time feeding, cleaning, sorting, counting and shipping crickets. I’d say “cricket farmer” myself. After all, the word for a building where crickets are bred is “barn”.

There are some differences between farming crickets and farming, say, sheep. For one thing, you can’t train dogs to herd crickets – the dogs keep stepping on them. Also, as crickets have no external ears, ear-tagging is a bitch. On the upside, you don’t have to erect and maintain electric fence, and I daresay if I’d been farming crickets instead of sheep in the nineties I wouldn’t have been chasing my flock all around the Wharncliffe cemetery from time to time when the fence failed.

Flippancy aside, cricket farming has its trials. The barn must be heated, because crickets are cold-blooded, and will go dormant, or even die, if the temperature drops too low. A cricket farmer needs ear protection; the thousands of crickets mature enough to breed are also chirping nonstop.

One thing all farmers have in common, though, is this: If you have livestock, you have dead stock.

A couple of months ago a disease wiped out almost all the breeding crickets in the cricket barns of North America. I can’t say I’d ever thought the phrase “because of the cricket shortage” would ever cross my lips, but it did, and still does. Some breeders took the hint and switched to another field. For weeks, now, our cricket orders have been short-shipped, and the crickets have been smaller than usual. We’re not the only ones to whom this is happening. Our supplier, who buys from a breeder in P.E.I., told us a few weeks ago that a flood in the breeder’s barn had wiped out all his recovering stock, just when he was ready to ship larger crickets again.

Some pet stores have been able to get larger crickets from a different supplier, but our supplier says that’s not going to last long. One of the cricket barns in the States that was still able to ship large crickets has closed.

So far the reptile keepers who are our cricket customers have been understanding. We offer other food animals, such as mealworms. Now that summer is here, it’s possible for reptile keepers to catch insects outside, provided they can be sure the insects haven’t been exposed to pesticides. All in all, it could have turned out a lot worse than it did.

Our cricket shipment is due today, along with the mealworms, silkworms and hornworms we ordered. Whether we’ll get our whole order, and how large the crickets will be, remains to be seen. But we keep our fingers crossed and hope for good weather for the cricket farmers.

The tortoises are hare – um, here

Today we received five tortoises: a pair of redfoots, a pair of three-toeds, and one yellowfoot.

The redfoots and yellowfoot will get to be between eighteen and twenty inches long; the three-toeds will be six to eight inches long at full size. They are vegetarian in the main, although they’ve eaten mealworms from time to time. They seem to be fond of melon, mushrooms, the mache salad greens (picky little beggars!), blueberries, strawberries, grapes and bananas.

It’s only recently that tortoise keepers have known the proper conditions for these animals, so we really don’t know their maximum lifespan in captivity. Thirty to forty years is a good guess on the time commitment you make when you take home a tortoise.

The three-toeds are proven breeders, and the redfoots have been courting, so we think there may be eggs in their future. In the meantime, they’re set up at the front of the store in their own large pen.