Magazine article Natural History

Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect That Shaped the American Frontier

Magazine article Natural History

Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect That Shaped the American Frontier

Article excerpt

Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier by Jeffrey A. Lockwood Basic Books, 2004; $25.00

Among the more than 30 million items in the National Collections of Insects and Mites of the Smithsonian Institution is a pair of nondescript specimens: two dark grasshoppers of the species Melanoplus spretits, commonly known as the Rocky Mountain locust. In the 1800s vast armies of these creatures rose up every few years, rolling across the Great Plains and leaving nothing but ruin in their wake. Their approach was heralded only by an eerie grayness. Then the horizon disappeared beneath an advancing cloud of blackness, while a deafening buzz swelled out of the gloom. Frontier farmers ran for cover, choking and flailing at the air. The locusts shredded fields of ripening wheat, stripped the wood from the handles of farm tools, ate the very clothes off of farmers who ventured outdoors to drive them away. There were reports of trains unable to move, because the rails were greased for miles by the bodies of crushed locusts.

The devastation was biblical. A trained observer measured one swarm in Nebraska to be at least 110 miles wide. The swarm included an estimated 3.5 trillion insects. No wonder, then, that the homesteaders viewed the locusts as the wrath of an angry God.

More pragmatic souls devised ways to fight back, patenting devices like the King Suction-Machine, a horse-drawn contraption that vacuumed locusts into a chamber where they were hurled to their deaths against a wire screen and blown into bags for disposal. But nothing proved effective. It is no exaggeration to say that locusts were a critical factor in limiting growth on the American frontier, as well as in allocating public resources-as important to consider as climate, railways, and the struggle with Native Americans. …

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