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Mormon crickets return

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The word "Mormon" has been used often this year in the West, and not always in a kindly way.

It is most often mentioned in connection with the pernicious "Mormon crickets." The insects that once plagued pioneers continue to torment modern farmers. The insects have returned this year, chewing their path into ruin as voraciously as did their forebears a century ago.

More than 3.3 million acres in Utah, some 2 million acres in northern Nevada and additional acres in Idaho were, are or will be swarming with the two-inch creatures of which Brigham Young said "the air is alive with them, and if you kill one, two more come to bury him." (Journal of Discourses, 4:301.)

Brother Brigham's modern fellow cricket adversary, Greg Abbott, who is the grasshopper/Mormon cricket coordinator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Utah, said, "The size of the Mormon cricket population tends to be tied to years of drought. The hypothesis is that their eggs hatch better in dry years, that in irrigated or wetter crop lands the eggs rot in the ground and do not hatch."

They naturally die out in late June, after laying their eggs. In a drought year, most of a typical female's 80 eggs hatch, increasing the pestilence as the drought extends.

In a drought, these bugs head for spots of moisture, usually irrigated crops and gardens. Residents in western Utah and Nevada fight them with poisons — a wheat flake — that the crickets consume and die, and then poison the next one which devours the carcasses before it. The insects advance in a horde, like a low cresting flood, covering and devouring all plant life. The crickets close roads, fill ditches, clog drains and cover everything in sight. Residents try everything to kill them, but the incessant march of the crickets overcomes all barriers. This year, the crickets will do an estimated $25 million in damage to crops just in Utah.

When the pioneers faced the crickets for the first time this description was given of the infestation: "They came swarming from the foothills literally by millions, and descended upon the new made fields of grain. They devoured all before them as they came to it. Their appetites never abated. They were cutting and grinding all day and night, leaving the fields bare and brown behind them." (Comprehensive History of the Church, 3:86.)

Sea gulls feasted on the crickets in June of 1848, but not before a great deal of damage was done to crops.

From Canada in 1872, the Manitoba Free Press, quoting the San Francisco Bulletin, described a later cricket plague at "one of these settlements":

"The Latter-day Saints. . . . have not been exempt from the ancient scourges of [Old Testament times]. The locust . . . makes a periodic visit to the Mormon farmers. . . . [As word of the crickets came, the correspondent saw] "every man, woman and child in the place fortifying their crop against the invader, some were digging ditches and turning the waters of the stream into the dyke while others were piling up dry brushwood, ready to be ignited when the enemy approached. . . .

"About noon the next day, they perceived a dark cloud in the east. . . . from about the height of about five feet to the ground the air was dense with their masses. They flew in our faces like hail, filled our pockets and were piled in heaps about our feet. The women and children, and men, formed a rank before the corn field and endeavored to beat them back, but, though the slain were piled up many feet high, the locusts never wavered for a moment but pressed on, eating and dying and rotting in disgusting charnel heaps. The water courses were full of them and the survivors crossed the stream on the dead bodies of their vanguard. The dry brush was lighted and burned fiercely fed by clouds of destroying armies, but in a few hours, the throng extinguished the flame and crowded on over the cinders to the doomed corn field. . . . And when at last the despairing farmers gave up the fight, all that night the locusts fell on their roofs like hailstones and crawled in through every nook and crevice in their dwellings.

"The next morning when they arose at daylight to inspect the extent of their damages. . . not a trace remained to indicate that the seed had ever been planted. But patiently the work was recommenced." (Provided by Brian Margetson of Manitoba, Canada.)

Of some small comfort to today's farmers, some 5,000 sea gulls in northern Nevada have indeed been gathering and feasting on the crickets. However, they are will make little impact on the insects.