The Return of the Locust

By Dr. Sherwood B. Idso

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    Thousands of years ago, when the prophet Moses was called by the Lord to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt, there was a great plague of locusts sent to scourge the land. We read in the Bible that Moses stretched forth his rod, “and the Lord brought an east wind upon the land all that day, and all that night; and when it was morning, the east wind brought the locusts.

    “And the locusts went up over all the land of Egypt. …

    “For they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened; and they did eat every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left: and there remained not any green thing in the trees or in the herbs of the field, through all the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 10:13–15.)

    It sounds almost unbelievable, doesn’t it? Not a single green thing remained in all the land of Egypt! Yet experiences in our own day help us to understand something of the magnitude of destruction wrought by that plague of flying death; for the desert locust has returned again and again to wreak havoc over fully one fifth of all the earth’s land area, even up to the present day.

    The ever hungry locust generally works its destruction in great swarms. The largest one to be accurately measured covered almost 1,035 square kilometers and may have included some 40,000,000,000 (40 billion) insects. Since each locust will eat its own weight in food every day, such a swarm is capable of devouring 80,000 tons of food dally—enough to feed 400,000 people for a year! It is no wonder that mentioning a locust plague sends shivers of fright down the spines of inhabitants of those lands where these insects strike.

    Throughout history, locust plagues have been a familiar occurrence for many peoples of the Middle East and Asia. The most recent one was the great plague extending from 1949 to 1963. Even now, however, the stage is being set for perhaps an even worse one.

    The start of the present buildup in locust populations can be linked to heavy rains in the Mideastern part of the world in the fall of 1977. The rains provided essential moisture and fresh green vegetation for the young wingless “hoppers.” Usually they are destroyed on the ground by aircraft-applied pesticides before they reach adulthood, but in 1977 and 1978 local warfare kept antilocust teams from doing their jobs effectively. Thus, with nothing to stop them, the first swarm of locusts was reported in Saudi Arabia in December 1977.

    More rain fell, and the spring of 1978 saw locust breeding increase in Saudi Arabia as well as the Yemen Arab Republic, Ethiopia, Somalia, and the Sudan. A third breeding season followed, with massive swarms flying to India across the Arabian Sea, where heavy rains in the Ganges River basin made India and Pakistan major breeding areas. And so it is that today more than 50 countries are faced with the prospect of possible major agricultural losses from this fearsome living legend.

    Many scientists are involved in studying the desert locusts and ways to halt its progress of destruction. In particular, much effort has gone into developing ways to detect the young wingless hoppers and destroy them on the ground before they are capable of flying. Since they usually breed in uninhabited areas, satellites are being used to survey those areas for new plant growth. Such growth will occur in places of recent rainfall where the locust deposit their eggs.

    Since the locust requires a large amount of moisture for its eggs to hatch, some satellites may be used to seek out these pockets of moist sand even before new vegetation appears. Then, pesticides may be used to destroy the insects on the ground. If this can be accomplished, it will give a real boost to our efforts to control the desert locust; for if the young hoppers are not stopped on the ground, they must be fought in the air. And when aircraft have to spray them in flight, dangerous chemicals are spread over crops, animals and even people.

    So the battle goes on. It has been waged for thousands of years, with neither man nor insect having completely won or taken control. We can only hope that with the new tools of science that are being used to try to solve the problem, much needless suffering and starvation may be eliminated.

    Illustrated by Shauna Mooney

    Above: An Ethiopian field-worker spraying infested vegetation in an effort to save it from the locusts. (Photo courtesy of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.)

    Right: A swarm of desert locusts settled for the night on a tree that has been completely stripped of its leaves. (FAO photo by Jean Manuel.)

    Left: During the locust invasion of French Morocco in 1954, the road to Tiznit is covered by locusts that have been crushed by automobiles. The dead locusts are immediately preyed upon by those that remain alive.

    Below: Men spread poison in an attempt to control the 1954 locust swarm. (FAO photos by Studios de Souissi, Rabat.)