Real-Life Plague of Katydids Hits the American West

This is not CGI. It is a close-up of an actual Mormon cricket.

Jacob Hamblin on Shutterstock

A mysterious plague of insects has hit the American West in insane concentrations—up to 70 bugs per square meter. Where do they come from?

That fellow up there is a Mormon cricket, a bug improperly named for two major reasons. First: it’s not a cricket at all, but a katydid. Second, no insect has yet been known to declare allegiance to any human religion.

Mormon crickets are so named by the Mormon settlers who encountered them in Utah. The three-inch-long insects are found mostly in low density, and nobody much cares about them most years; they’re flightless and harmless, though some accounts note that they make excellent bait for fly-fishing. Except, every once in awhile—scientists have no idea why this happens or when it will happen next—the Mormon cricket population explodes in a cicada-like swarm of dozens per square meter, devouring everything in its path. Crops, other insects, even other Mormon crickets: the swarm is a crazy plague that destroys whole crops. It’s even a traffic hazard. Check out this tidbit from the Associated Press, quoting an Idaho state policeman:

Drivers who see pavement that looks like it is moving should slow down and drive as if they are on icy roads, he said. Police work with transportation officials to post warnings and, if necessary, sand roads fouled by cricket carcasses.

Gaaaaaahh!

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This year, the Mormon cricket swarm appears to be centered around southern Idaho and northern Nevada, with some reports from nearby western states ranging from Washington to Colorado to Arizona. The worst Mormon cricket plagues in recent years were in 2001 and 2003, when Utah was forced to declare a state of emergency amidst damage to cropland estimated as high as $25 million.

But Mormon crickets aren’t the only insect plague that can destroy agricultural land. Here are a few others.

Australian Plague Locust

The Australian plague locust, an insect locally referred to as a “hopper” but whose common name is pretty appropriate, hit an area roughly the size of Spain in eastern Australia back in 2010. Believed to be caused by heavy rains following a long drought, the plague locust only hits a swarming frenzy when at a certain density. Luckily, the Australian authorities were prepared for the swarm, and with the help of some favorable weather, damage was minimized.

European Starling

It isn’t only insects that swarm. The European starling, a glossy black-green bird with white speckles, is perhaps the most infuriating bird on the planet. Traveling in flocks of up to 50,000 birds, starlings will eat basically any agricultural product they can find, from wheat to grapes. It’s estimated that these swarms of starlings cause about $800 million worth of damage to the American agricultural industry each year thanks to crop damage, equipment damage, and droppings.

Malagasy Locust

In Madagascar in 2013, swarms of billions of Malagasy locusts took over a whopping 50% of the entire country, the UN estimated. With the majority of the swarm in the poorest section of the island, the UN said that the locusts could cause hunger issues for 60% of the population, and asked for $22 million in aid to fight the plague, and another $19 million to institute an early warning system for the next one.

Real-Life Plague of Katydids Hits the American West