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Grasshoppers, yes, but so far no locusts

It took five days in the late 1800s for the cloud of locust to pass

Grasshoppers, yes, but so far no locusts

I don’t know if there is much of a silver lining to the drought of 2021, but I’ll throw this out there — at least farmers aren’t dealing with a plague of locusts as happened back in 1874.

I have heard in recent days of crop and pasture conditions ranging from okay, we’ll get through this year, to terrible, all the way to, “There is no point in starting the combine.”

A couple of southern Alberta farmers in early August reported on Twitter that winter wheat and winter rye yields ranged from 15 to 30 bushels per acre, while spring wheat will probably be under 20 bushels per acre.

There are news reports of grasshoppers causing extensive damage to what crops there are in parts of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. Bad for crops and, of course, making the TV news were reports of thousands of grasshoppers infesting the yards of homeowners living on the edge of the city in west Lethbridge.

A now retired southern Manitoba farmer Francis Poulsen, who writes every once in a while, sent a letter explaining how he managed grasshoppers around the farmyard in 2019.

Poulsen, who is in his early 80s, farmed for 50 years near Elm Creek, 50 kilometres west of Winnipeg and about 35 km southeast of Portage la Prairie. In his letter, Poulsen reported his non-chemical approach to grasshopper control around the yard.

“In the fall of 2019, our yard was just crazy with so many hoppers after the crops were harvested,” he writes, explaining there were three small pasture areas inside the homestead shelterbelt, plus a large lawn around the house and grain bins.

“We had always mowed these grass areas in an up and down (or back and forth) pattern, when I came up with the idea of going ’round and ’round. By going ’round and ’round, the mower kept blowing the grass and grasshoppers toward the middle of the cutting area. By the time you get to the centre, you have a lot of heavy cut grass plus lots of grasshoppers that couldn’t fly.”

Poulsen removed the pile of grass clippings as well as the dead, disabled and somewhat trapped grasshoppers.

“I repeated this procedure three times within three to four weeks with hardly any big hoppers left,” he says.

While that was bad, I’m guessing the relatively short-lived locust plague of the late 1800s was even worse.

It is hard to imagine the assembly of any living creature covering an area of nearly 200,000 square miles at any one time, but that is the number attributed to a biblical-scale plague of locusts that swept across the U.S. Midwest and into parts of Western Canada in 1875, destroying virtually everything in their path.

Several times during the 18th and 19th centuries there were reports of great swarms of the Rocky Mountain locust causing crop damage all the way from Colorado to Maine. The swarm that built up during the drought years leading up to 1874 and peaking in 1875 and described as the living eclipse of the sun, is believed to be the largest insect swarm in recorded history. And what may be even more extraordinary is that within 25 to 30 years of this record-breaking swarm, the pest was declared extinct.

The size of the 1875 swarm was measured by Dr. Albert Child, a Plattsmouth, Neb., physician. “By timing the rate of movement as the insects streamed overhead for five days and by telegraphing ahead to surrounding towns, he was able to estimate the swarm was 1,800 miles long and at least 110 miles wide,” said published reports.

Described as “Albert’s Swarm” the Guinness Book of World Records determined it was the largest insect swarm in history, covering an estimated 198,000 square miles. It was estimated the swarm contained at least 12.5 trillion insects with a potential weight of 27.5 million tons.

In Manitoba, the locusts appeared in 1874 and intensified in 1875, according to Winnipeg-based writer Bruce Cherney. Thanksgiving Day of 1875 in Manitoba was cancelled, he reports. “The locust had killed off any justification for declaring a day of giving thanks for the harvest,” said Cherney.

“The locust plague destroyed so many crops of fresh vegetables north of Winnipeg that scurvy broke out. Dr. David Young, who practiced near present-day Selkirk, laboured day and night to alleviate the sufferings of those afflicted by the disease caused by vitamin C deficiency.” By 1876 the plague had abated.

Among many theories about the rapid decline of the pest, it is suspected a return of cooler and wetter conditions did not favour the locust. Also, with increasing farming activities and crop production in fertile valleys near the Rocky Mountains where the pest laid its eggs also disturbed the soils, preventing the locust from reproducing.

I know it doesn’t help much, but it is sort of a reminder that things could always be worse.

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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