In the decade following 1932, children’s author Laura Ingalls Wilder published a series of eight novels, a fictionalized autobiography based on the childhood experiences of a 19th century pioneer and settler family. Third in the series is the best known, Little House on the Prairie, the subject for a television series running from 1974 to ’83.
In her fourth book, Wilder tells a tale of grasshoppers, of a time when locusts wiped out a much-anticipated and badly needed wheat crop, laying so many eggs as to destroy all hope for the following year, as well. On the Banks of Plum Creek, published this day in 1937, told the story of “Pa” having to walk three-hundred miles east to find work on farms, which had escaped the biblical plague.
There are something like 11,000 species of grasshoppers in the world, the familiar, plant munching insects of our summer fields. They are vegetarian creatures with polyphagous feeding habits, meaning they’ll eat just about anything, given the need and the opportunity.
Usually a solitary creature, only a few species will become locusts, the “gregarious” phase of the insect’s life cycle characterized by swarming, migration, and accompanied by explosive growth in population.
Such swarms have been reported since the time of the Pharaoh. The two years in Wilder’s story, 1874 – ’75, are among the worst swarms on record for the Rocky Mountain Locust, Melanoplus spretus.
M. Spretus finds its home in the fertile valleys of the Rocky Mountains, but outbreaks of the insect have caused farm damage as far away as Maine during the period 1743–’56, and in Vermont during the administration of President George Washington.
When President Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis & Clark off on the Corps of Discovery expedition, vast herds of American bison stretched from horizon to horizon, as far as the eye could see. Historians estimate 30 to 60 million of the creatures, each weighing up to 2,000 pounds and measuring twelve-feet long. A minimum of sixty billion pounds of biomass, needing something to eat.
The western artist George Catlin estimated that, by 1841, some two to three million of the creatures had been slaughtered for their hides. Bison populations came under increasing pressure as natives acquired horses and guns, but the real slaughter began with the Indian wars and “hunting by rail”, when every dead buffalo was seen as a dead Indian. By the late 1880s, only a few hundred individuals remained alive, in Yellowstone National Park.
With the bison gone and a new wave of vegetation, there arose a new and very different multitude, come to feed on it.
During the 19th century, farming expanded westward into the grasshopper’s favored habitat, triggering massive outbreaks in their numbers. Locust populations exploded to varying degrees in 1828, ’38, ’46, and ’55, affecting areas throughout the West and upper mid-west. Plagues visited Minnesota in 1856–’57 and again during the last year of the Civil War. Nebraska suffered repeated infestations between 1856 and ’74.
NPR reports in a 2020 segment about locusts in Africa, that such a swarm measuring one square kilometer, about a third of a square mile, can consume as much in a day, as would have fed 35,000 people.
Population blooms of two years are typical, as eggs laid in year one tend not to thrive as well as their parents. At its height, farmers reported finding up to 150 egg cases per square inch, each containing 100 eggs or more.
In 1875, Doctor Albert L. Child of the U.S. Signal Corps watched a mile-high swarm of locusts pass overhead, for five days straight. Together with telegraph reports from neighboring towns, Child estimated the swarm to be 110 miles wide and 1,800 miles long. 198,000 square miles, one-third the size of Alaska, or the combined landmass of our thirteen smallest states. It was a rolling tide, the size of California and Maine, put together.
The numbers are so far outside of human experience, they are hard to get your head around. For a little perspective, a million seconds is about twelve days. A Billion seconds ago, Jimmy Carter was President of the United States. A Trillion seconds ago, the oldest known clay object was fired to ceramic in the earliest oven. It was 29,000, B.C.
“Albert’s Swarm”, the largest such assembly of organisms in recorded history, is estimated at 12½ Trillion individuals.
It was a biological wildfire, a living blizzard that blotted out the sun, 12½ trillion insects each the size of a child’s finger, each driven to eat its own weight. Every day. All in, Albert’s Swarm is estimated to have weighed 27½ million tons.
As the continuous track of a bulldozer moves ever forward, the leading edge of the swarm would alight to rest and eat, only to pick up the rear, a few days later. In this manner, the swarm would cover ten miles or so in a few weeks.
One farmer reported “a great white cloud, like a snowstorm, blocking out the sun like vapor“. Even the sound was horrific, rising to a scream and rolling over the land like some evil tide, the whirring and rasping cacophony of billions of mandibles borne aloft to eat, almost literally, everything in sight. Native populations could and did, move. For prairie settler and pioneer families, home was on the farm.
Imagine a world with no grocery stores, and watching your food, All of it, disintegrate, before your eyes. Standing crops were the first to go and then the root vegetables: potatoes, carrots and turnips. They were devoured, right out of the ground. Throw a blanket over your garden to protect even that little bit, and they would eat the blanket. Fence posts, saddles, nothing was off limits. These creatures would eat the wool, right off of the sheep. At its worst, the ravenous horde was known to eat the clothes, right off of people’s backs.
Trains were literally stopped in their tracks on uphill stretches of rail, unable to gain traction for the grease of millions of tiny bodies, ground beneath their wheels.
Farmers used gunpowder, fire and water, anything they could think of, to destroy what could only be seen as a plague of biblical proportion. They smeared them with “hopperdozers”, a plow-like device pulled behind horses, designed to knock jumping locusts into a pan of liquid poison or fuel, or even sucking them into vacuum cleaner-like contraptions.
It was like trying to turn the tide, with a shot glass.
Missouri entomologist Charles Valentine Riley came up with a recipe to eat the damned things, seasoned with salt and pepper and pan-fried in butter. Some bought the recipe, but many felt they “would just as soon starve as eat those horrible creatures”.
In 1877, a Nebraska law required everyone between the ages of 16 and 60 to work at least two days eliminating locusts, or face a $10 fine. Missouri and other Great Plains states offered bounties: $1 a bushel for locusts gathered in March, 50¢ in April, 25¢ in May, and 10¢ in June.
And then the locust went away, and no one is entirely certain, why. It is theorized that plowing, irrigation and harrowing destroyed up to 150 egg cases per square inch, in the years between swarms. Great Plains settlers, particularly those alongside the Mississippi river, appear to have disrupted the natural life cycle. Winter crops, particularly wheat, enabled farmers to “beat them to the punch”, putting away stockpiles of food before the pestilence reached the swarming phase.
Today, the Rocky Mountain Locust is extinct. Several grasshopper species swarm as locusts on every continent in the world, save for North America and Antarctica. The last living specimen of the Rocky Mountain Locust was seen in Canada, in 1902.