God’s Little Army

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

Entomologists are quite possibly some of the weirdest people on the face of the earth. Obsessive compulsion is more than a common bond for these academic bug munchers, it’s an occupational advantage. Famous entomologists have launched careers through a variety of gonzo tactics. In 1922, one entomologist purposefully subjected himself to a black widow bite in order to record the rate at which the spider’s venom sapped his nervous system. This self-provoked assault brought him to the brink of kingdom come. The world’s first authority on ticks designed a pair of socks that provided mini-nests for the disgusting bloodsuckers to feed from his own feet. He couldn’t change the socks until the ticks reached full capacity—an interval long enough for him to lose several close friends as well as his wife. Today, it’s hard not to find an entomologist who doesn’t bite into strange bugs as a matter of course. They’ll do this to gauge their chemical make up or test for poison composition. Entomologists routinely insist that insects are high in protein, low in fat, and full of flavor. And they’re right. But one imagines that their dinner parties are rather exclusive affairs.

Jeffrey A. Lockwood, a professor of entomology at the University of Wyoming, is clearly in the right profession. He’s a man gifted (burdened?) with a consuming entomological mission: He wants to know the grasshopper. “I could not have devoted seventeen years of my life to the study of grasshopper biology and ecology,” he writes, “without a passion for these creatures and lessons they offer.” He continues, “[n]o sane person would devote such labor, let alone so much of one’s life, to the pursuit of questions that did not touch the heart and soul while stimulating the mind.” Sounds sane enough—perhaps even inspirational. But before any of this begins to seem remotely normal, there’s always a well-timed reminder that, for the entomologist, sanity is relative. Consider this: “We spend a lot of time peering at grasshopper penises.” You see, kind of weird.

Fortunately, weirdos can write some pretty good books. In Locust, Lockwood has written an informative, readable, and entertaining history of the Rocky Mountain locust attacks that ravaged the American West during the second half of the 19th century. Ravaged would be an understatement. Driven “not by a macabre lust but a need for protein and fat,” swarms of locusts (the swarms were perfectly normal phenomenon by historical and biological standards) periodically tormented the West, blanketing anything and everything in their midst while consuming the crops that fed the settlers, paid their bills, and pretty much justified their existence in an area that, left to its own devices, would have been a desert. One account from a Kansas farmer captures the voraciousness of the outbreak with particular panache:

At our place they commenced coming down about 1 o’clock in the afternoon, at first only one at a time, here and there, looking a little like flakes of snow, but acting more like the advance skirmishes of an advancing army; soon they commenced coming thicker and faster, and they again were followed by vast columns, or bodies looking almost like clouds in the atmosphere. They came rattling and pattering on the houses, and against the windows, falling in the fields, on the prairies and in the waters—everywhere and on everything. By about 4 o’clock in the afternoon every tree and bush, buildings, fences, fields, roads, and everything, except animated beings, was completely covered with grasshoppers.

As was the case for agricultural societies throughout history, this “tempestuous hurricane” became a brutal fact of life for the embattled frontiersmen who headed west. Accepting the reality of this environmental threat was akin, as the phrase suggests, to coastal dwellers accepting the prospect of devastating storms. There was, no matter how intricate the myth of opportunity, no denying the risk involved. Confronting the insect onslaught with tangible methods, however, was another matter altogether. Oddly, whereas nobody has ever seriously entertained a plan to eliminate hurricanes from the face of the earth, humans seemed to think they could put an end to the insect world. This impulse tragically overlooks the point that the insect world is just as mysterious and forceful as the weather. “Exorcising the swarm” thus became the all-consuming goal of the ministers, politicians, and scientists charged with managing the locust problem. And their aim was as pure as it was misguided: They wanted the locusts dead and gone. The first third of Locust is thus a mini-saga of people making the wrong decisions. And—no surprise here—the history of losers makes for very good history.

As the locusts swarmed, the ministers advocated faith. The Lord, some men of the cloth claimed, was setting free the locusts for no other reason than to test the mettle of his flock. Contrary to many agricultural interpretations, locusts were not the “green imps of satan” but rather “an army of God.” The devastation they wreaked was so thorough because “the dear Lord did not want to make any exceptions.” Lockwood interjects his overview of this metaphysical interpretation to remind us that such a stance was not as out there as it seems. The godly ministrations, he writes, “were based on the contentions of Thomas Aquinas that animals, including locusts, were not culpable for their deeds.” For centuries “the proper response to a troublesome swarm was to call upon the populace to repent and humbly entreat an angry God to remove the scourge.” Accordingly, western settlers trooped to church and repented in earnest, so earnestly that the governor of Missouri in May of 1875 declared, “be it known that the 3rd day of June proximo is hereby appointed and set apart as a day of fasting and prayer that Almighty God may be invoked to remove from our midst these impending calamities and grant instead the blessings of abundance and plenty.” Well, needless to say, none of it worked. But in giving this spiritual response its due, Lockwood opens the door on a mentality that, for all its inaccuracy, was deeply influential.

Politicians fared little better than the ministers. For the first time, locusts and the devastation they wrought compelled governments to confront their obligations to the suddenly impoverished on a scale to which they were neither accustomed nor prepared. Given that the idea of agrarian independence and rugged individualism were reigning supreme, and given that the so-called “welfare state” was nearly a half-century in the future, state agencies were disinclined to offer much more than symbolic gestures and patronizing bromides. Nevertheless, after private charity proved inadequate, they tried their hand at relief, placing bounties on locust nymphs and eggs, providing nominal seed grants, and giving pep talks. Ultimately, though, they were inhibited as much by a lack of creativity as economic reality. Lockwood notes, for example, one Minnesota county needed about $60,000 to support 60 percent of its population with aid. The county revenue that year was $2,488. The federal government, which may have had more at stake than the states in seeing the West watered and blossomed, was more resourceful and responsive. Congress passed relatively massive relief bills while—despite a great deal of opposition—sending in the U.S. Army to establish and operate “store houses” stocked with agricultural essentials. In the end, though, “lawmakers did not mobilize the nation’s troops to directly combat the locusts.” Farmers, Lockwood concludes, “were left to do the actual fighting.”

Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American FrontierWith both God and the U.S. Government having failed to save the American farmer from the locust plague, it was left to scientists to take their best shot. The entomological response to the locust outbreak was fast and furious. Entomologists tired of being de facto taxonomists seized the opportunity to save lives, strengthen the nation, and bolster their own careers. No longer was it acceptable to spend time “diddling with new species and other dandy curiosities” when “farmers were facing an ancient plague.” Despite Lockwood’s much appreciated focus on the personalities involved in the process of solving the locust crisis, however, the second third of the book may lose a few readers, if for no other reason than the fact that it demands some level of scientific competency (which, with the popularity of “intelligent design” and what not, is in shorter and shorter supply these days). In any case, entomological solutions covered the gamut. Scientists recommended burning fields, biological control, integrated pest management, a manure recipe made of copper acetoarsenite, and the use of a quirky machine called a “Riley Locust-Catcher.” Perhaps the best hint of the ultimate effectiveness of these “scientific” solutions was the U.S. Entomological Commissions’ pathetic but quite serious suggestion that farmers simply eat the locusts. A USDA official even went so far as to offer that “some of the mature insects … boiled and afterward stewed with a few vegetables, and a little butter, pepper, salt, and vinegar, made an excellent fricassee.” It all made prayer look pretty good.

As the scientists bungled, however, something seemingly inexplicable occurred: The locust disappeared. USDA entomologists, naturally, took full credit for this bizarre development as each year passed without an outbreak. And then, at some point, people just forgot about the locust altogether. It was a classic case of “out of sight, out of mind.” By the time Jeffrey Lockwood made it to graduate school in the early 1980s the Rocky Mountain locust was deemed extinct and, due partly to the slow appreciation of its disappearance, nobody could effectively explain why. Scientists had hypothesized and dabbled around for an answer, but the conventional wisdom was nothing more than casual hearsay. Lockwood, however, began to investigate. Realizing that previous explanations were inadequate (and, at some length, explaining their inadequacy), Lockwood scraped together funding to find a sound solution to the most sudden mass extinction in recorded history.

His search comprises the final third of the book. In many ways, it’s the most riveting stretch of prose, not least because Lockwood’s quest sends him scaling up 10,000 foot mountains to chisel away samples of ice-encrusted Rocky Mountain locusts from rapidly melting glaciers (global warming is a quiet sub-theme of the book). The discovery and DNA analysis of well-preserved Rocky Mountain locusts—about 250 of them—allows Lockwood to disprove several prevailing hypotheses and assumptions regarding their habits and extinction. The attacks, it turns out, weren’t novel to the 1870s but had been breaking out for at least 300 years, and likely much longer. There were no predictable cycles to their emergence—explosions were truly random, like the weather. Molecular analysis indicated that no “genetic bottleneck” took place at the turn of the century, thus discounting a loss of genetic variation as a viable cause of extinction. And most important, their decline was immediate, as “these insects had not been in a prolonged decline.”

Lockwood’s explanation for the locusts’ extinction came from an Introduction to Entomology lecture he revised on the monarch butterfly. Although Mexican residents have known this fact for centuries, scientists learned in 1975 that the entire population of monarch butterflies winters in about a dozen wooded nooks in the mountains west of Mexico City. As Lockwood explained this rather simple point to his students it occurred to him that “three dozen loggers armed with chain saws could destroy the entire population of monarchs in the course of a single winter.” This point—that “an ecological bottleneck can spell disaster for a species if the compression of its numbers occurs in a time and place where human disturbance is likely to occur”—became his conceptual mother lode. It didn’t take long for Lockwood to conclude (and prove to his skeptical colleagues) that 19th-century farmers—while being attacked—were also unwittingly destroying the highly concentrated “sanctuaries of locusts” with their aggressive agricultural methods. In this “entangled story of vice and virtue, of hope and greed,” the Rocky Mountain locust was—due to “unplanned, uncoordinated, and unintentional human activity”—strangled.

Of course the overarching question begging the reader throughout this entire fascinating account is … “so what”? Does it do anything for us to know why a meddlesome species went extinct? One might consider the fact that a species disappears every thirty minutes, a rate that’s a thousand times faster than the “normal rate of extinction” (whatever that is), whip out that “extinction is forever” bumper sticker, and drive off into the sunset burning fossil fuels along the way. Or one might do as Lockwood advises and appreciate the quiet irony of his story. Humans drove locusts into extinction without meaning to. One hundred years later, global warming—by melting the ice and exposing the frozen locusts—allowed Lockwood to reveal that humans were responsible for the locusts’ extinction. As “the insects warn us of an even more serious threat to the natural world,” humans nonetheless seem relentless in manipulating

the environment that squeezes populations into sanctuaries and bottlenecks of our own—”seaboards, riverbanks, and desert margins.” Perhaps we have more in common with the Rocky Mountain locust than we think.

Sadly, there’s nothing weird about that.

James E. McWilliams is working on a history of insect control in America, tentatively titled The Bug Wars.

James McWilliams is an Ingram professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos.

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Published at 12:00 am CST