Pharaoh Had It Easy

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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.