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  Texas : Features : Columns : "It's All Trew"

Locusts plague settlers

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew
While settling the West, the locust plagues of the 1870s and 1880s seem to stand out in the people's minds more than other disasters. Interviews, diaries and media records described the flights of locusts more as horror stories rather than actual fact. This approach gave birth to many myths and exaggerated legends the public has come to believe as fact.
"Locust," a book by Jeffrey A. Lockwood published in 2004, traces the history of locust plagues from early times, around the world and into modern times. Sound scientific research, carried out over long periods of time by renown entomologists, finally traced the origins and demise of the Rocky Mountain Locust. Here are a few brief facts of interest.

Locust plagues date back to Biblical times and have been recorded in most countries of the world. The plagues occurring in America date back only to 1875 when white settlers came to settle on the Great Plains. Although Native American Indians told of locust plagues before the arrival of the white man, the facts and dates were not recorded.
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The worst and largest plagues came in 1875 and 1876, followed by lesser plagues on through the 1880s and 1890s. The final assault came in 1902 in Manitoba, Canada. Then suddenly, the Rocky Mountain Locust disappeared.

The plagues reappeared briefly during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, however it was not the dreaded Rocky Mountain Locust but only plain grasshoppers of a different breed, much smaller and lesser in number.

Among the many myths of the time, especially among some religious beliefs was, the plagues were God-sent to punish sinners. Those ecology-minded believed the plagues were generated by drought, climate warming, plowing the prairies or the demise of the vast Buffalo herds which kept the plains forages in check. Others who witnessed the plagues personally, forecasted the end of the world from black, swarming clouds of locusts devouring every leaf and stem in their war on civilization.

Over time and through the efforts of many, the truth emerged. The swarms of locusts originated in the lush mountain valleys alongside rushing streams. Their eggs were laid in clusters and remained in hibernation until the exact right conditions occurred.

When these conditions happened in the proper sequence, the eggs hatched, more eggs were laid and hatched until the local forage was depleted. At that time, the locusts grew wings and awaited a jet stream going in the right direction. They arose, rode the winds to the prairies, descended and began the dreaded locust plagues. The swarms laid eggs on the prairie, hatched again and again for two to three years with each hatching less vigorous than before until the plague finally died out.

What actually caused their demise? Settlers who homesteaded the lush mountain valleys after the Gold Rush ended, plowed the land, disturbed the nesting places and planted alfalfa. Something contained in the alfalfa plant did not agreed with the locust digestive system. This disturbance plus the change in forage caused the death of a specie. Check it out! It's in the book.

Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew" March 6, 2008 Column
E-mail: trewblue@centramedia.net.
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