Pharaoh Had It Easy

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“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.