The war between farmers and the insects that want to eat their crops is ancient. Since Biblical times, one of the most feared pests has been the locust. Every so often, conditions become just right for the insect's population to explode, resulting in a plague of locusts, like the one now devastating parts of North Africa and the Middle East. Experts say early detection is a key to keeping them under control.
"What's going on in Africa right now is probably the largest desert locust outbreak, at least in the last 20 years," says University of Wyoming professor Jeff Lockwood, who is world-renowned for his knowledge of grasshoppers and their cousin, the locust. He says that walking through a swarm of either one is unforgettable. "They explode from beneath your feet. There's sort of a rolling wave that forms out in front of you. They hit up against your body and cling against your clothes and what not. It's almost like being immersed in a gigantic living being, almost as if you've entered a living tissue. It's really a fantastical, almost unimaginable experience."
It's an experience most Americans have never had. Even senior citizens generally must think back to their childhoods, before they can recall plagues of the crop-eating hoppers.
They'd fly into the window, and it'd just be squashed with 'em," says Henry Kester, who remembers them swarming in Illinois. "They'd be just all over. You couldn't walk anyplace, you'd actually slip on them."
Margaret Ketcham says that it was tough in the 1930s, when she was a girl in Colorado. You couldn't walk down the street. You couldn't open the house for fresh air, to keep the bugs out," she says.
Mrs. Ketcham says they devastated crops. "I recall my father talking about losing wheat crops because of the grasshoppers. He was very distressed that he had lost crops, and drat on these bugs, these grasshoppers that were causing all of the crop failures," she says.
According to Jeff Lockwood, one reason these seniors must think so far back is because the United States now manages insect problems before they get out of hand. Many nations in Africa and Asia that are home to the desert locust lack the resources for regular pest control, and they must rely on international organizations like the FAO when the insects start to swarm.
Usually, locusts behave like their cousin, the grasshopper. They live alone, they don't travel far, they provide food for birds, and nutrients for the soil. But when weather patterns boost their numbers, they get ready to leave the remote desert regions where they usually reside. Professor Lockwood says the stress of overcrowding acts like the drug that transformed Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde. The locusts actually undergo a physical change. Their wings and jaws grow longer, stronger. They change color. They travel together, in monstrous swarms.
"One locust in your garden is not a big deal," says Professor Lockwood. "Ten thousand locust in your garden is a disaster." And Professor Lockwood says many swarms in Africa today contain 4,000 times that number - 40 million locusts, sometimes a billion or more. They become clouds of terror, like a tornado. "Most of the land they pass over doesn't suffer any damage at all. But where the tornado or the locust swarm touches down, there's devastating effects. If it's your village or district, that the locust descend into, you may be facing famine or at least hunger," he says.
The entomologist says that communities hit by locusts need food aid simply to survive. To lessen the impact of a hungry swarm, he recommends newer pesticides that do less harm to other creatures, and an application technique, developed in Africa, that makes the most of these chemicals by spraying them on alternating swaths of land.
This gives beneficial creatures poison-free refuges. When locusts die in the sprayed swaths, the tainted food they've left behind attracts, and kills, more locusts. Professor Lockwood also suggests that satellite monitoring can pinpoint green pockets in the desert that young locusts prefer, making it easier to find them and wipe them out.
Once locusts reach plague levels, Jeff Lockwood warns that they're like an enormous forest fire. Stopping them usually requires Mother Nature to step in and change the weather. For people to make a difference, he says, they must monitor locust populations every year, even when there's no activity, although this goes against human nature. "You don't usually grab a headline by saying, we prevented a problem. You usually get a headline by saying, there's a problem, and we engaged in a heroic effort fight to end it," he says.
While many international relief organizations say Africa is too big, too poor and too remote for regular pest surveillance, Professor Lockwood says it will save money and help more people, if countries work together on early warning systems for this ancient agricultural scourge.