The Superior Express -

African Locust swarms devouring crops; not new to Kansans


February 13, 2020

Biblical swarms of crop devouring locusts are eating their way across Africa. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAO have declared the situation a crisis. Favorable climatic conditions allowed widespread breeding of the pest in East Africa, Southwest Asia and the area around the Red Sea.

So far the countries experiencing the worst infestations are Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia. The FAO Locust Watch webpage indicates aerial and ground pest countermeasures are ongoing but, they remain insufficient. This has caused fear that the pests will continue to breed and migrate to vulnerable farmlands in Uganda and Sudan in the coming months.

Just because we live in the Midwest, don’t think we are immune from such a plaque as they are now experiencing in Africa. In the 150 years since Jewell County was established there have been several reported grasshopper or locust plaques.

The first came only 5 years after the county was founded. It may explain why some of our ancestors left an area and moved to a distant region. Or, why they returned to the same area they originally came from.

If you had family who lived in Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas or the western portions of Iowa, Missouri, or Minnesota in the mid 1870s, chances are they were witnesses of the devastating plagues of locusts that swept over the region. Lush gardens and fields were reduced to a barren, desert like appearance within a matter of hours. Crops that were needed to sustain a family and their farm animals were destroyed leaving no means of support during the coming winter.

The worst such plaque in the nation’s history came in 1875 only five years after Jewell County was established. That year has been called “The Year of The Locust.”

Nothing like it in the United States had been recorded before and nothing like it has been since.

What could cause such devastation and panic? The answer is a relatively small flying grasshopper, roughly 1.25 to 1.4 inches long, known as the Rocky Mountain Locust. Individually, they were rather unimpressive and caused little problem. When conditions were ideal, they could multiply into the billions, travel over long distances, and consume virtually anything and everything that was remotely edible. Their native homelands were the dry Rocky Mountain upland region of primarily Colorado, Wyoming and Montana.

After hatching out in the spring of the year, the locusts would travel eastward in search of food. In years where the number of those hatched was unusually large, the food supply was stripped rather quickly driving them ever eastward in search of new food supplies. Kansas and Nebraska were usually among their first targets and were frequently the most devastated but the swarms spread over a large area stretching north from the interior of Canada and extending all the way to the south border of Texas. The eastern regions of Nebraska and Kansas along with the western regions of Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri were the areas most devastated.

Mrs. Ruby Ensign, a Jewell County resident, later recalled “Their great number and size clouded the sun and when they left not a green thing could be found.”

Consider this quote from “Voices from the Past: What We Can Learn from the Rocky Mountain Locust” by Jeffrey A. Lockwood.

“According to the firsthand account of A. L. Child, a swarm of Rocky Mountain locusts passed over Plattsmouth, Nebraska, in 1875. By timing the rate of movement as the insects streamed overhead for 5 days and by telegraphing to surrounding towns, he was able to estimate that the swarm was 1,800 miles long and at least 110 miles wide. Based on his information, this swarm covered a swath equal to the combined areas of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont.”

While nationally 1875 appears to have been the worst, Jewell County history indicates 1874 may have been worse for the local residents. Many early settlers left and did not return until the conditions improved.

Depressed markets, drought, floods and grasshoppers also added to the misery of Jewell County in the 1930s.

Jeff Lockwood of Wyoming described being in a swarm as follows, They explode from beneath your feet. There’s sort of a rolling wave that forms out it front of you. They hit up against your body and cling against your clothes. It’s almost like being immersed in a gigantic living being. Locusts and grasshoppers undergo a significant transformation when they become part of a swarm. Their wings and jaws grow, enabling them to travel greater distances and increasing their appetite.

In 1936, the Rossville Reporter newspaper published a story about hordes of grasshoppers sweeping like tornadoes over and through some of the Plains states. Older residents of the Rossville area remembered 1874 and a phenomenon which must have rivaled that historic happening recorded in Exodus, when the “plague of locusts” completely denuded Egypt. The spring gave great promise and even in July a bountiful harvest was forecast. There was drought, there were hot winds, but there was enough of subsoil moisture to pull the crops through.

Then, in the latter days of July, calamity dropped from the sky. Scanning a brazen horizon for signs of rain, farmers saw instead a strange cloud moving like the wind, with the sun glinting from millions of points. It was the grasshopper horde. It swept on and on, but always dropping enough of the hoppers to denude every green thing.

Cornfields melted before it leaving merely the woody stalks. Grass disappeared. The hoppers became green from their diet and they fed upon each other. Men, women and children stood helpless with slowly starving livestock about them. Railroads sought to help with shipments of supplies, but the hoppers, with a fine carelessness for life and limb, settled on the rails and supplied a greasy cushion which stopped trains. They got into wells and cisterns, they settled down in dying masses in the open springs. For days their movement dimmed the sun. Then the hoppers burrowed into the earth and laid their eggs. The following spring, the new brood hatched.

Here in Jewell County people who witnessed the grasshopper invasions have said the insect ate everything, even the bark from hedge posts.


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