When Grasshoppers Attack

Hello Beetle Queen empire! I’ve kindly been invited to post here, so I thought I’d start with a bit about grasshoppers, since a voracious swarm is currently making an all-you-can-eat buffet out of the eastern Wyoming and Montana hay, wheat and alfalfa crops, a topic I recently wrote about at my own blog.

In her film, Jessica explores the Japanese’s unusual passion for insects, but another way of looking at it may be asking why most other cultures would rather squash first, ask questions later.

Melanoplus femurrubrum, a North American migratory grasshopper. Creative Commons Gilles Gonthier

Melanoplus femurrubrum, a North American migratory grasshopper. Creative Commons Gilles Gonthier

Perhaps it has something to do with the traumatizing treatment insects have occasionally dealt us. Biting flies, bees and wasps, mosquitoes, lice, bedbugs, and even botflies come to mind, but for shear wrath-of-God power, the migratory locust has them all beat. The grasshoppers in question belong to the notorious genus Melanoplus, and are called locusts* in their swarming phase. Wherever they have called (and they have called on all continents except Antarctica), they have visited disasters of literally biblical proportions, having no doubt inspired the author of Exodus.

Here in North America, grasshoppers and their cousins have periodically swarmed across the West since time out of mind, prompted in their boom-and-bust reproductive rhythms by cues of climate, precipitation and a certain amount of je ne sais quoi. From the crop-leveling locusts immortalized by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Larry McMurtry to the legendary Mormon Crickets — actually a species of katydid — that almost did in the early settlers of Utah, North American insects have periodically and regularly arisen to take back what was theirs from a mostly helpless human population. According to the Kansas Historical Society, roving grasshopper swarms blotted out the sun, fell like rain, and, in addition to stripping the soil of every green thing, were not above consuming paper, tree bark, wooden tool handles, the wool off live sheep, and the clothing off live people. Trains could sometimes not get traction because the rails were slicked with grasshoppers.
Try imagining dealing with that for a week. Now try imagining that for hundreds of miles in all directions.

In 1874, a mammoth swarm 198,000 square miles (513,000 km²) big — twice the size of Colorado – mobbed the Great Plains. The trillions of insects were the legendary Rocky Mountain Locust, the party responsible for the paper pilfering and sheep sheering detailed above. People tried raking them into piles and burning them, but they were powerless to stop the insects in the face of such overwhelming numbers. Truly, Grasshopper Queen Conquered Kansas.

But here’s the twist: the Rocky Mountain Locust is extinct – and it was extinct less than thirty years later. This puzzled entomologists for a long time, who wondered if the insects somehow survived in their solitary form (the locust form is only induced on crowding). Strangely enough, no one had saved many samples because no one could conceive such an apparently successful pest could go extinct. Fortunately (and weirdly) enough, a few of the trillions got blown off course into Grasshopper Glacier in Montana, where they were cryogenically preserved for posterity. Scientists who have chiseled some out have confirmed that the many still-pesky species alive in North America today are not members of Melanoplus spretus, which, for good (probably) or ill (maybe) and short of some evil-villain-style cloned resurrection, is gone from the face of the Earth forever.
Scientists now hypothesize that the grasshoppers became vulnerable when, during a natural quiescent stage in the latter part of the 19th century, they laid their eggs in sandy stream banks, where farmers plowing fields (ironically) unearthed and destroyed their egg cases. American agriculture accidentally annihilated its own scourge. The last Rocky Mountain locust was seen in Canada in 1902, perhaps not coincidentally, the same year the first Western – The Virginian – was published in America, immortalizing an Old West that was already dying.

So where does that leave us? Still swarmed with grasshoppers of less-than-biblical but still-staggering proportions, still perhaps traumatized by cultural memories of similar experiences, but now the only inhabited continent devoid of a dominant massive migratory locust species. We stripped it bare.
* The etymology of the oft reused and abused “locust” is enough to make a taxonomist’s head explode, since it can also refer to cicadas, North American leguminous (and sometimes very thorny!) trees, and the fruit of the Mediterranean carob tree.

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