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Pharaoh Had It Easy

July 2024
13min read

Egypt’s locusts could not have been more terrible than those which blighted the Great Plains for four summers, then vanished as mysteriously as they had come

“They are awful!” wrote General Alfred Sully in a dispatch to headquarters. “They have actually eaten holes in my wagon covers and in the tarpaulins that cover my stores!”

The General’s outrage was evoked during a march across the Dakota Badlands in 1864. “A soldier on his way here,” the report went on, “lay down to sleep on the prairie in the middle of the day—the troop had been marching all night. His comrades noticed him covered with grasshoppers and awakened him. His throat and wrists were bleeding …”

Fortunately, General Sully’s encounter with the insects was a brief one. It was merely an unpleasant foretaste of the plague of Rocky Mountain locusts—or grasshoppers, as they were more often called—which was to blight the Great Plains area from Manitoba to Texas and from the Rockies to the Mississippi. These modestly proportioned but insatiable creatures suddenly materialized in overwhelming numbers during the spring of 1874, ravaged the countryside for four successive summers and then, without so much as a wave of their antennae, mysteriously vanished. Originally identified as Caloptenus spretus, and now known as Melanoplus spretus—one of four gluttonous and migratory species known to the North American continent—this grasshopper was occasionally seen in small numbers during the remainder of the century, but not a single live specimen has been reported since 1904.

Had it not been for the sudden easing of the plague, the course of civilization in the Great Plains might very well have been changed, for at its peak billions upon billions of grasshoppers were rendering agriculture of any sort impossible. There is little dispute that in outright intensity this plague of the mid-seventies stands unrivalled in the history of the North American continent. The Mormon crickets may have been equally as damaging over a restricted area, and no doubt the boll weevil has, in its time, created comparable economic loss. But for dramatic impact, neither of these is in a class with the Rocky Mountain locust.

Though archaeologists have discovered Indian relics embellished with representations of grasshoppers, and New Englanders were complaining of locust plagues as early as 1743, probably the first recorded instance of trouble with the notoriously destructive Rocky Mountain locust was reported by a Captain Jonathan Carver. In 1766, while exploring the region west of the Great Lakes. Captain Carver took the word of the Indian inhabitants that “the Locust is a septenniel insect, as they are only seen, a small number of stragglers excepted, every seven years, when they infest these parts and the interior colonies in large swarms, and do a great deal of mischief.”

The famous Canadian fur trader, Alexander Henry the Younger, who settled near the present site of Pembina, North Dakota, observed in a journal entry dated June 25, 1808, that “Swarms of grasshoppers have destroyed the greater part of … my kitchen garden, onions, cabbages, melons, cucumbers, carrots, parsnips and beets. They had also attacked the potatos and corn, but these were strong enough at the root to sprout again.” “The very trees,” he added more menacingly, “are stripped of their leaves.”

A decade later the settlers of the Red River valley received an even more convincing preview of the plague to come. A number of farmers were driven from their land, which the grasshoppers left “as barren as though swept by flame.” Having devoured the crops and defoliated the trees, the insects turned to a diet of bark.

With starvation in prospect, the leaders of the colony at Pembina spent six thousand dollars to send a relief party overland to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, on the Mississippi, to purchase food. More than three months later the mission returned, paddling three Mackinaws full of wheat, oats, and peas. The first locust-relief expedition had followed a devious water route of hundreds of miles, and manhandled their heavily laden boats over lengthy portages with roughhewn wooden rollers.

The following year the locusts, who had abandoned their seven-year cycle (if indeed they ever maintained one), came back to plague the Pembina settlement. As the years passed, reports of locust incursions grew in frequency and scope, doubtless because there were more humans present to voice complaint, as well as more cultivated fields to attract the interest of the six-legged raiders. It appears, however, that these outbreaks, which occurred up through the early seventies, were merely local in character; just how many may be blamed on the Rocky Mountain locust remains a question. Certainly the locusts were migratory. As one settler commented, “They came one year and left us the next when the young had acquired wings, and so they came and went all the time.”

As the snows melted in the spring of 1874 the grasshoppers suddenly seemed to appear everywhere on the Plains. So rudimentary were communications at the time that the widespread nature of the assault was not immediately realized. “Such a host of insects I never saw,” reported a Kansas homesteader. “The ground is completely covered and the blanches of the trees are bending down with their weight. In my orchard of nearly twenty acres the trees are covered by myriads. The grove on the north is one huge, moving mass.”

“Thirty acres of wheat which looked beautiful and green in the morning is eaten up,” he continued. “Six hundred and forty acres, two miles south of me, that was looking fine at the beginning of the week, looks this morning as though fire had passed over it.”

Later that season, as the insects developed wings and began their aerial migrations, the St. Louis Republic printed this report: “A glance upward toward the sun revealed them filling the air as far as vision could extend, as thick as snowflakes in a storm, and they drifted along with the breeze, and fluttered down at your feet occasionally or lit on your nose, with as much unconcern as if they had been part of the elements.”

The swarms described in this newspaper dispatch were a dark omen of what the next few years would bring. The plague of 1875 proved even more severe, and it, in turn, was surpassed by the grasshopper invasions of 1876 and 1877.

Probably the main deterrent to unlimited multiplication, year by year, was the food supply. The grass hoppers had their taste preferences, and even a minor invasion could be economically disastrous, for the insects invariably went straight for exposed cornsilks, the heads of young wheat, and the juicy stems of cotton bolls, thus destroying what they did not consume.

But there was little they would not eat when their favorite foods were exhausted or unavailable. Onion bulbs, comparatively impervious to insect pests, became a target when the locusts had finished off the other produce in sight. Their ravages would leave the onion patches pocked with holes where the bulbs had been, while the air hung heavy with acrid fumes.

With grain and vegetables disposed of, the locust hordes took the weeds—everything from “Jamestown weed” to wild hemp (now known as marijuana)—and the trees. As a final parting gesture they nibbled whatever clothing and harness they could reach, and even chewed on the handles of spades and pitchforks. For dessert, they ate each other.

They did not eat silently. While a keen ear might have been needed to detect the gourmandizing of a single individual, the noise produced by several million tiny mandibles was audible for a considerable distance. This did little to improve the disposition of the property owners who unwillingly played host to the insect visitors.

Next to their propensity for omnivorousness, the Rocky Mountain locusts specialized in reproduction. Still in dispute is the exact number of offspring turned out by each female in a season. The figure seemed to vary with climatic conditions. Whereas in some cases Mrs. Spretus laid three to four batches of eggs, there were times when she would make a single deposit and call it a summer.

The female grasshopper would seek a dry, firm, sandy soil for her nest, which she gouged out of the ground to the depth of one inch with a pair of strong “valves” at the tip of her abdomen. This drilling process, even in hard earth, would take but a few hours. Then, with her entire abdomen below ground level, she would begin extruding her twenty to thirty cigar-shaped eggs in a careful arrangement that permitted those young at the bottom of the hole to make their escape if their brothers and sisters nearer the surface chose to over-incubate. Next the female would seal the eggs with a waterproof but easily broken cellulose film, shove a little dirt into the neck of the hole to conceal it, and wander off, perhaps in search of another mate.

The following spring the infant would struggle up into the sunlight encased in a pellicle, which was soon split open and discarded. At first the youngster would be relatively inert, resting from the exertion of hatching and letting the warmth of the sun permeate its muscles. Presently, assuming more of the outward appearance of a mature grasshopper, it would commence to move about more actively in search of food. After quickly denuding the vicinity of its birthplace, the entire colony of nymph locusts would begin to march.

The direction of movement appears to have been chosen entirely at random. During the plague, many eyewitnesses reported seeing one army of grasshoppers surging down one side of a road while a second passed going the other way. Once on the move, however, they were not easily deflected. From time to time one locust army would encounter another coming head on, or from the flank. Without pause, they would simply scramble around and over one another, each individual steadfastly maintaining his original course without regard to the cross-traffic.

Railroad tracks, to the grasshoppers, were no deterrent whatever, and this was to prove a source of major annoyance to train crews. Since locomotives would instantly lose traction on the rails made oily by the insects’ crushed bodies, trains were forced to carry quantities of sand against this contingency.

The same unswerving attitude prevailed when the locusts came upon natural obstacles. In 1875 several million crossed Pottawatomie Creek near Lane, Kansas, at a point where the stream was more than seventy feet wide. Another observer watched the crossing of the Big Blue and Little Blue rivers near Independence, Missouri, which were in several places a good one hundred feet across! They would march down to the water’s edge and commence jumping in, one upon another, till they would pontoon the stream, so as to effect a crossing. Two of these mighty armies also met, one moving east and the other west, on the river bluff … and coming to a perpendicular ledge of rock 25 or 30 feet high, passed over in a sheet apparently 6 or 7 inches thick, and causing a roaring noise similar to a cataract of water.”

The rate of advance of the half-grown locusts was three yards per minute at best. The pace was one-fourth hopping and three-fourths walking. Any single individual, forced to hop a dozen times consecutively, would halt from fatigue. Theoretically then, a locust army might cover thirty miles during its walking and hopping phase, but in practice this range was sharply reduced. The grasshoppers were choosy about marching in the rain. They seldom got started before ten in the morning and usually halted for the night by four in the afternoon.

In the final chapter in the life of the Rocky Mountain locust, its wings sprouted and it took to the air to migrate almost unbelievable distances and spawn. To this day the naturalists are trying to resolve the available evidence into a meaningful pattern of movement. They are handicapped by the fact that in flight the locusts were disposed to meander a good deal, guided largely by the direction of the wind. The same swarm that blackened the sky for hours over a particular locality going east one day might conceivably repeat the performance a day or two later traveling west. With a favoring breeze and no succulent young grain to provide a distraction, the locusts sometimes flew two hundred miles in a day. To travel at the rate of fifty miles an hour with a forty-mile tail wind was, of course, no startling accomplishment.

No farmer could witness the destruction of his crops with equanimity, and from the outset of the plague plainsmen tried to devise ways to combat the locusts. Probably no living species has brazenly defied so many different attempts at extermination.

The first instinct of a property owner, upon noticing his wheat being eaten down to the nub, was to run out into the field, shouting and waving his arms. This procedure only mildly alarmed the locusts, who would surge into the air in small clouds and immediately settle back to earth and resume their interrupted meal.

From this point, human ingenuity conjured up a multitude of devices and techniques both simple and complex to squash, bury, trap, burn, asphyxiate, trample, crush, drown, or poison the common enemy.

One of the simplest methods was the destruction of unhatched grasshopper eggs. Through some rough calculation it was widely advertised that a bushel of eggs removed from circulation equalled the saving of one hundred acres of corn. On this basis, states like Minnesota and Missouri offered bounties of up to five dollars—a fair weekly wage—for a bushel of locust eggs.

The bounty laws made strict provision for measuring the catch and insured that no egg was brought in twice for the reward. A bounty of one dollar per bushel was offered for young grasshoppers, the price being progressively reduced as the season wore on. It was the reasonable contention of the authorities that by June the average locust had eaten his fill. Locusts captured in May were redeemed at a mere quarter a bushel.

No public budget was ever seriously thrown out of balance by the payment of locust bounties. Though as many as twenty thousand eggs might be laid within the space of a square foot of ground, there was widespread misconception about the best place to find them. While the eager bounty hunters were meticulously sifting shovelfuls of earth scooped from the cultivated fields where the grasshoppers had been seen feasting, the majority of the embryos might be peacefully developing in the hard-packed adjacent pastureland.

Once the quarry was visible, pure manpower was brought into the fray: for example, a long wire wrapped in burning oil-soaked rags and stretched taut between two farmhands would be carried close to the ground over the fields where the infant grasshoppers were beginning to convene; from Europe was borrowed the design of a flat-bladed, shovel-like implement to flatten the locusts with lusty blows. This latter method facilitated collection of the bounty, but even at the top rate there was no giveaway involved: some seven thousand corpses were needed to fill a bushel basket.

Would-be efficiency experts turned their livestock into the infested areas in the expectation that the hoofs of the cattle and swine would appreciably decimate the locusts. The hope proved vain. As for domestic fowl, they soon gorged themselves into a stupor without making substantial headway against the tide; further, they became “crop-bound” by the more indigestible parts of the insects. And too, the flesh of turkeys that had been on extended grasshopper-control duty became tainted and unfit to eat.

A United States government entomologist, Charles V. Riley, who was very much on the scene during the critical years of infestation, industriously gathered all available data on the grasshoppers’ behavior and issued bulletins as to effective countermeasures.

“When the insects are famishing, it is useless to try and protect plants by any application whatever,” he wrote resignedly, “though spraying them with a mixture of kerosene and warm water is the best protection we have tried.” Riley instructed the fruit farmers to whitewash the trunks of their trees; the lime flaked off as the creatures tried to claw their way into the foliage, depriving them of a foothold. The whitewash applications had to be repeated frequently, and Riley tacitly acknowledged the partial ineffectiveness of this strategy by recommending that the farmer shake his young trees vigorously from time to time.

Experiments proved that locusts on the march might be blocked and destroyed in great numbers by digging in their path ditches two feet wide and two feet deep. The majority stumbled blindly into these traps and could mangle each other fatally in their mad struggles to get out again. It was further found that they could be channelled into death pits by arrangements of converging strips of netting or muslin. These devices were not geared, however, to exterminate locust armies advancing on a one-mile front, which often happened.

All this while, to be sure, inventive-minded individuals were deep in designs for machinery to combat the scourge. In general, the contraptions that emerged from the workshops and smithies were known as “hopper-catchers” or “hopperdozers”; some actually worked.

Usually horse-propelled, the hopperdozers attained widths of up to forty feet. The principles of operation varied. The Flory Locust Machine, for example, sought to crush the locusts between two rollers. Several horsedrawn scorching-machines were produced. The King Suction Machine was built on the vacuum-cleaner concept, with eight-inch tubes, flattened at the mouth, running close to the ground and drawing the pests into a chamber where a large fan rotated at twelve hundred revolutions per minute, providing the necessary air flow and effectively pulverizing the grasshoppers.

The glaring weakness of these designs was the assumption by their creators that most locust-ridden farmland was as smooth and level as a village green. On rough, sloping ground the machines were as helpless as a full-rigged ship in a creek bed.

Many farmers put their trust in machines that plunged the grasshoppers into a bath of water and coal oil. Equipped with a projecting unit called a “disturber,” which impelled the quarry to leap into the air, these machines were supposed to catch the insects against a wire screen and deflect them into the pan filled with the oil-and-water mixture. Advocates of this method were aware that many of the insects scrambled out of the pan, but were comforted by the belief (it turned out to be unfounded) that a brief exposure to the fluid would be fatal.

The development of such fearsome contrivances and others like them probably does not explain the virtual absence of Melanoplus spretus when the spring of 1878 arrived. Many factors may have caused its disappearance: the weather the year before had not been favorable for breeding; parasites that preyed on the grasshoppers and their eggs had multiplied; and it was noted repeatedly that the locusts of the summer of 1877 had been sluggish and, as the farmers phrased it, “used up.”

In August, 1876, the Georgetown, Colorado, Miner carried a dispatch illustrating the susceptibility of the locusts to atmospheric turbulence and sudden temperature change: “As the ravenous millions were driven up against the high ranges about Mount Evans, they were chilled and commenced falling into the little stream that flows near Sisty’s place, until for days, the rivulet was transformed from a sparkling stream of limpid water into a floating mass of dead grasshoppers, the water becoming so corrupt and offensive that neither man nor beast could tolerate it. The trout pond in Mr. Sisty’s meadow became so putrid that he was compelled to cut away the dam and let the accumulated filth flow off.”

Uncounted millions of Rocky Mountain locusts died in the snows of upper Yellowstone Park. They may be seen today, by those intrepid enough to survive the trip by jeep, horseback, and foot to the Grasshopper Glacier. In layer upon layer, the insects lie in this 11,000-foot-high deep-freeze. It is impossible to pinpoint the exact years in which they died there, but scientific tests have established that these grasshopper deposits very possibly coincided with the great plague, the victims chilled in flight like those that fell on Mr. Sisty’s farm.

True, the disappearance of the grasshoppers during the seventies may have been in some part due to the efforts of the settlers who had become organized, equipped, and inspired by their political leaders to fight back. Ex-Governor Robert W. Furnas of Nebraska set the tone in words meant for prospective immigrants: “While in the West we have room for millions more people, and are glad to have them come, and with us occupy and utilize the broad fertile acres God has bequeathed to the Far West, those who have not ‘sand and grit’ enough to clean out a crop of young locusts are not the men wanted!” Days of prayer were freely proclaimed as the farmers girded themselves for the massive insect assaults.

Public leadership was not confined to the rostrum. With the formation of relief societies to aid the destitute, various state legislatures authorized bounty payments and emergency allotments of new seed and even ordered the conscription of manpower to join in the antigrasshopper crusades. In Kansas all able-bodied males from twelve to sixty-five were subject to the call of the road overseer; in Minnesota the levy applied to all men from twenty-one to sixty, “except paupers, idiots and lunatics.”

Entomologists refuse to agree that spretus is extinct. Modern experts feel certain that a time may come, when conditions are ripe, when new swarms will range again over the fields they once denuded.

Should this occur, however, the grasshoppers will face weapons considerably more potent than the Suction Machine. In the face of lesser outbreaks that have materialized from time to time in the United States, and together with foreign-aid programs in Asia and Africa, insecticides have been developed that should make another plague out of the question. No longer experimenting with cumbersome bait, like bran impregnated with Paris green, the locust-fighters are now prepared to spread highly concentrated synthetic contact poisons from low-flying aircraft, which will not only kill any locusts present but destroy through residual effect those that may follow.

Melanoplus spretus, if he still exists in some remote sanctuary, will be well advised to stay out from under foot.

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