by Bruce Cherney (part 5 of 5)
With the Industrial Revolution in full swing, scientists and farmers put great faith in machines to overcome destructive hordes of locusts. The mechanical devices were clever, but generally not as useful as conceived by their inventors. The machines, many of which were patented, came in various forms and were of varying effectiveness. The “marvels” of 19th-century technology either burned (kerosene was used in most), crushed, trapped, caught, or used chemicals to kill the locusts. For the most part, the machines could only be used when the locusts were in their hopping and walking stages of development and not when they became adults equipped with sturdy wings — flying out of the path of a machine was relatively easy for the voracious insects.
The Riley Locust-Catcher, invented by American entomologist Charles Valentine Riley in 1878, used a light wooden frame with a canvas bag stretched around it. Two men pulled the machine across a field, drawing locusts into a canvas bag as the machine moved forward. When the bag was full of locusts, it was detached, tied and buried in the earth. The process was then repeated until a field was cleared of the pests.
Riley wasn’t the only inventor of locust-catchers. Among the other machines of this type were the Hero ’Hopper-Catcher, the Flory Locust-Machine, the Wilson-Rhode Locust-Catcher, the Godard Locust-Catcher, the Hutchins Locust-Catcher, and the Sylvester Locust-Catcher, to name just a few.
Another device was the “hopperdozer,” which was made of metal scoops smeared with molasses or tar. Whatever sticky substance was used, the intent was to entangle the insects in the goo and then scrape them off the surface when the locusts entirely covered it.
Perhaps the most popular machine devised to combat the locust plagues was the Robbins’ Hopper-Dozer, a relatively inexpensive device. Essentially, it was a narrow sheet-metal pan about three metres long with the back higher than the front which acted like a scoop to feed the locusts into a coal-oil (kerosene) or tar mixture that was found to be effective in killing young locusts before they turned into winged adults. The Robbins’ Hopper-Dozer could easily be pulled by two men — one at each end of the device using separate ropes — across a locust-infested field.
Other models of hopper-dozers were significantly larger and had to be hauled across the field using a pair of horses.
Farmers unable to afford a hopper-dozer or a locust-catcher took to fields with hand-held nets — what we would today call a butterfly net — attempting to scoop up as many locusts as possible before the insects destroyed their crops. But there were always too many locusts and too few people available to swing the nets and as such only a small dent was ever made in the pest’s population by this method.
Scientists, such as Riley, even suggested settlers turn to eating locusts, as was the practice in Asian and African nations and among the Aborigines in Australia.
The Manitoba Free Press on October 15, 1875, related an amusing story, originally published in the Boulder, Colorado, News, about a dinner for five held in Warrensburg, Montana. The participants in the experimental dinner, including Riley and a local reporter, indulged in dishes made from locusts. The reporter said locust soup tasted “like chicken soup,” and with seasoning added, a “delicate mushroom favour” was detected. “The soup had banished prejudices and sharpened our appetites” for the next course of batter-cakes, well mixed with locusts, “which quickly disappeared.
“Baked locusts were then tried (plain ’hoppers without grease or condiments) and either with or without accompaniments it was pronounced an excellent dish.
“The meal was closed with dessert à la John the Baptiste — baked locusts and honey — and, if we know anything, we can testify that distinguished Scripture character must have thrived on his rude diet in the wilderness of Judea.”
But it was a practice that never caught on among North American pioneers, whose cultural aversion to insects could not be overcome, regardless of how often locusts were described by entomologists as being especially tasty in a soup. Settlers only associated locusts with the Plagues of Egypt, described so ominously in the Bible, and not as appetizing fare at the dinner table.
Riley remarked that Paris green (copper acetoarsenite) — a green pigment first developed to colour wallpaper that was also found by the French to be a powerful insecticide — had proven to be “unsatisfactory” in controlling the insects.
A July 13, 1874, New York Herald article said Paris green was undoubtedly unwholesome to locusts, “but its arsenical ingredients are deadly to the farmers and deteriorating to the soil he spreads it over ... The expensiveness of all chemicals, even those which are harmless, sends the farmer to some simple and mechanical means of contending with the evil.”
Manitoba naturalist and entomologist, Norman Criddle, improved upon the potential of the insecticide and was acclaimed for developing the “Criddle Mixture,” a noxious concoction that used a pound of Paris green to which was added 50 pounds of horse manure (he claimed locusts loved to munch on horse droppings), a pint of molasses (other recipes omitted molasses and substituted salt), and enough water to make it into a soft, but not sloppy, mixture. Once combined, the foul-smelling mixture was shovelled from the back of a wagon onto farmers’ fields to poison the pests.
But when the “Criddle Mixture” was developed in 1902, the locusts had disappeared, although no one really knew it at the time. As a result, the concoction was solely used for controlling grasshoppers, which was an easier proposition as hoppers are localized pests that normally stay put to feast on a field. Unlike locusts, grasshoppers don’t fly in swarms in search of greener pastures to strip bare of vegetation.
There were sporadic inundations of locusts throughout the Great Plains of North America after the devastating plagues of 1874-78.
On June 17, 1898, the Free Press reported the appearance of locusts “in a small section of southwestern Manitoba. They are the same hoppers that overran this country in 1874-75, and at different periods previously.”
But it was North Dakota that bore the brunt of the locust onslaught.
In a dispatch from Fessenden, North Dakota (southeast of Minot), Wells, Eddy and Foster counties farmers were reported in the June 17, 1898, Winnipeg-based Morning Telegram to be “all torn up over the discovery of myriads of grasshoppers in their fields.” The newspaper said locusts were hatching in the billions, and that when old enough had “eaten away great patches in the grain — some places measuring from one to forty acres — leaving the ground as bare as a street.”
The Northern Pacific Railroad agreed to transport kerosene oil for hopper-dozers free of charge to the areas worst hit by the locusts. “The county commissioners and farmers are having these ‘hopper-dozers’ made as fast as they can and they are being used quite effectively.”
“The situation is quite serious,” said Prof. Otto Lugger, a University of Minnesota entomologist who toured the areas infested with locusts, including southwestern Manitoba (Free Press, June 17). “The Grasshoppers (similar to his contemporaries, he often used the word grasshopper when referring to Rocky Mountain locusts) are now hatching. They are two weeks old and are beginning to leave the ground.”
The entomologist said eggs were laid in stubble fields and nowhere else.
“This shows the importance of plowing the ground every Spring,” Lugger added. “Every inch of the soil should be ploughed. That is the only way to kill them while they are young. They are buried, and being too weak to fight their way to the surface, they die.”
Lugger posted notices at depots along the route of the Northern Pacific Railroad from St.Paul, Minnesota, to the Rocky Mountains, informing farmers about methods to kill the locusts. If North Dakota farmers didn’t take preventative measures to minimize the threat, Lugger feared that the locusts would take flight in a couple of weeks and descend upon Minnesota farms.
“It is important for farmers to watch the Red River Valley ... This species of grasshopper is the Rocky Mountain species that comes from the eastern foothills of the Rockies. It has been controlled for a number of years, but now it has broken loose again ... and it is bound to inflict all the damage it can.”
In June 1898, the Manitoba department of agriculture was informed that the Turtle Mountain district, especially the area around Deloraine, was infested with locusts. It was at a farm owned by John Scott that the insects were first observed. The farmer declared “that they were the same species that visited the Red River Valley and did much damage in 1875 (Free Press, August 23, 1899). Mr. Scott was a resident of the province at that date and remembers well the invasion.”
In fact, Scott was so well versed in identifying the various forms of insects that he could easily distinguish a grasshopper from a locust, according to Fletcher.
Dr. James Fletcher, an entomologist and botanist at the federal experimental farm in Ottawa, toured Manitoba in July and confirmed Scott’s assertion that the Rocky Mountain locust was present.
“The second visit of inspection was made about the 15th of August, when locusts were mating, previous to females depositing their eggs. The locusts at the time were not so numerous as when seen in July.”
The Portage la Prairie Weekly Review on August 25, 1898, reported that Fletcher and Hugh McKellar, the deputy-minister of the Manitoba agriculture department, were given a tour of the afflicted area by MLA C. Young. George Greig of the Farmers’ Advocate and a Mr. Harcourt of the Northwest Farmer newspapers also participated in the inspection.
Fletcher pronounced that there was no doubt that the Rocky Mountain locusts was responsible for the infestation.
The Canadian government entomologist said any reappearance of the locusts in 1899 depended upon the actions taken by farmers in 1898.
Fletcher said Scott had destroyed massive numbers of the insects by spreading lines of straw across his fields. The locusts gathered under the straw at night and were killed when the straw was subsequently set on fire.
He also advised farmers to use hopper-dozers to capture and drown the locusts in the kerosene and tar mixture contained in its scoop. Fletcher said 35,000 bushels of locusts were killed in Minnesota in 1888 by using hopper-dozers.
“This number, of course,” said Fletcher, “is far in excess off anything we have in Canada at the present time. I do not believe that there is any cause for serious alarm, but it is most important that the farmers of Southern Manitoba, where these insects occur, should understand the gravity of the case if the matter is neglected. The remedy is simple, and it really involves any change in the ordinary methods of farming.”
Like Lugger in Minnesota, Fletcher advised farmers to plow their land to deeply bury eggs, which resulted in newly-hatched locusts being unable to make their way to the surface.
Fletcher further said that few eggs were laid on newly-plowed land or the open prairie. “This is owing to the fact that a certain firmness of soil is necessary for the female to burrow the hole in which she lays her eggs; and also that if the land is filled with roots of grasses, as in the case of prairie or neglected farms that have been left to grow up to weeds, she is unable to dig out this hole, owing to these roots of grasses and other plants.”
The entomologist added that the swarm infesting Manitoba had “undoubtedly” come “from the Turtle Mountains,” as they had been observed a year earlier by Scott flying from the region to farmland in the Deloraine area.
He said the Rocky Mountain locust was to be feared because it has greater powers of flight than grasshoppers, and seemed to especially like “the succulent vegetation of cultivated crops.”
In June 1899, Fletcher and Lugger made an inspection of the fields that had been infested the previous year. Following an investigation of egg sacs found in the ground, the two scientists announced the presence of the Rocky Mountain locust in southwestern Manitoba.
At a public meeting in Deloraine, Fletcher and Lugger urged the 80 farmers in attendance to plow up their summer fallow before the eggs hatched. Even if this precaution was taken, Fletcher and Lugger commented that locusts would still hatch along unplowed roadways or “other favourable places.”
A month after the two scientists visited the district, reports were arriving in Winnipeg stating that locusts were appearing in considerable numbers east of Deloraine and toward Boissevain, as well as in the vicinity of Stockton, which is immediately south of Spruce Woods Provincial Forest.
Initially, it was claimed in American newspapers that the Turtle Mountains along the Manitoba-North Dakota border “were a permanent breeding ground” for the Rocky Mountain locust (Fletcher at first believed this to be the case), but Lugger and other American entomologists refuted this claim and correctly insisted that the permanent breeding grounds for the locusts was only along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.
Following the reports of locust infestation in southwestern Manitoba, D.W. Hunter, an entomologist commissioned by the U.S. department of agriculture to investigate the outbreak and the possible threat to farmland in North Dakota and other plains states, arrived in Winnipeg on August 11, 1899. In the company of Fletcher and McKellar, a tour was made of the afflicted region in the province.
Their first stop was a kilometre south of Boissevain, where a Mr. Embree had reported seeing locusts. He was familiar with the insects as he had witnessed the plague of 1875. With Embree as their guide, the men collected various grasshopper specimens as well as the only locust species to be found in North America — the Rocky Mountain locust (Melanoplus Spretus).
“Going west from Boissevain,” the Free Press reported on August 23, 1899, “the next stop was made at Mr. Burton’s farm where much valuable information was received, and every assistance possible given the party to carry out the object of their mission.”
Burton informed the men that most farmers in the area had followed Fletcher’s earlier advice to plow up “all stubble in the fall or early in the spring, but a few treated the matter with indifference, having their summer fallow unplowed until the middle of July, when the hoppers were hatched and were in their fourth or fifth stages (of development), before finishing the summer fallows, hoppers were in the sixth stage, fully developed locusts, that could fly and keep out of the way of team and plow.”
Further inspections were made by the party in the vicinities of Deloraine, Napinka, Glenboro, Souris, Hartney, Stockton and Carberry in southwestern Manitoba.
“As to the damage that was done last year or this year it cannot be said to be serious. Only a rod or possibly two wide on a few fields partly destroyed is all that can be noticed. Intelligent, observing farmers are doing all that can be done, following the instructions given faithfully. A few are even getting hopper dozers made and catching large quantities on the edge of their fields.”
The locusts were said to be moving north and east from the district, but the scientists were confident that an outbreak the following year could be averted if farmers continued to plow up their fields in the fall and spring.
“It is questionable whether the invasions of grasshoppers can ever be prevented in some portions of the West,” according to the July 13, 1874, New York Herald. “These insects are bred in myriad numbers on the Rocky Mountain slopes and protected by snow until the genial weather of spring arrives and they can go forth on their depredations. In their breeding places they cannot be reached. But when a colony has moved eastward and deposited its eggs in the soil they can be attacked.”
The Herald was correct in its claim that plowing up the eggs was an effective means of fighting the locusts, which was a well-known preventative measure among some farmers, such as William Nimmons of Stony Mountain in 1875, and in the Boissevain, Deloraine and Turtle Mountain districts in 1898 and 1899. But the New York newspaper was incorrect when it stated that the locusts could not be attacked in their home range on the slopes of the Rocky Mountains.
On December 3, 1886, Fletcher, the Canadian entomologist, made a pronouncement that may have surprised many prairie residents. He claimed the rapid settlement of the prairies then underway would prevent another destructive invasion of locusts similar to 1875, and that once the country was fully settled, the Rocky Mountain locust would entirely disappear.
As it turned out, Fletcher was right. Even past 1902, when the last two live specimens of Rocky Mountain locust were collected by Criddle, Fletcher toured the west promoting deep plowing before eggs hatched as the most effective method of controlling locusts and grasshoppers.
As a result of all the information made available about preventive measures to combat grasshoppers and locusts, Manitoba farmers had “become, as far as grasshoppers are concerned ... practical and expert entomologists,” according to the May 17, 1902, Free Press.
In the end, it was the same agricultural practices that initially provided the locusts with a smorgasbord of food to dine upon that eventually did them in.
“Between outbreaks, the locust hid out in the river valleys of Wyoming and Montana — the same river valleys that settlers had discovered were best suited for farming,” explained American entomologist Jeffrey A. Lockwood in his article, The Death of the Super Hopper (High Country News, February 3, 2003).
“By converting these valleys into farms — diverting streams for irrigation, allowing cattle and sheep to graze in riparian areas, and eliminating beavers and their troublesome dams (causing overland flooding, killing eggs and young) — the pioneers unknowingly wiped out locust sanctuaries.”
The most damaging blow, according to Lockhart, was the plowing up of the locusts’ home breeding grounds along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, which exposed “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of these eggs masses.” In the aftermath of turning over the soil, eggs littered farm fields, exposing them to lethal weather elements and the damaging rays of the sun, which effectively prevented them from hatching into another generation of rampaging locusts.
Ultimately, the demise of the locust — the only insect to become extinct since the onset of agriculture 11,000 years ago — was the result of pure accident, a serendipitous byproduct of other human activities.