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Fig. 00. Young specimens of Migratory Locust (Locusta migratoria), NE Kazakhstan. The photo demonstrates distinct colour differences between solitary (left), intermediate (middle) and gregarious (right) forms. © Victor V. Glupov (Novosibirsk, Russia).

It seems that apart from Locust (and perhaps fleas) there are no other insects which could have been so destructive to human affairs and civilizations. When conditions are favourable, vast migrating swarms of Locusts can appear as a cloud that darkens the sky and rapidly devour all plant material on their way, from field crops to the foliage on trees. So great is their apocalyptic quality in human minds that, since the time of the Pharaohs, Locusts have been seen as a symbol of destruction – the wrath of God or a sign of cosmic disorder.

At first glance, Locusts look like large, short-horned and harmless grasshoppers, but their behaviour is different. Unlike grasshoppers, when Locusts are present in large numbers they tend to crowd together, forming vast swarms that can migrate long distances and cause catastrophic plagues. Large swarms can invade an area of Africa and Asia that extends across 57 countries and covers more than 20% of the land surface of the Earth (Fig. 1).

A single swarm may contain many million individuals, with an overall mass of several tonnes. Since these insects eat approximately their own mass of vegetation daily, they cause immense destruction of crops and pastures. For instance, 2.5 square kilometre’s worth of locusts – 100 to 200 million individuals – can consume 220 to 270 tonnes of food, which is enough to feed 200,000 people. In a single day, an average swarm can eat the same quantity of food as 2,500 people.

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Fig. 1. The invasion area of the Desert Locust (Schistocerca gregaria) and areas in which outbreaks are known to have occurred (from Logunov, 2006).

The apocalyptic quality of Locusts in human minds seemed to be the reason why their grotesque figures – gargoyles – were sometimes carved into the architecture of churches and monasteries (Fig. 2), perhaps creating a symbolic representation of hell. Furthermore, of some 98 bug species mentioned in the Revised English Bible, the Locust is referred to at least 31 times (see also here). For instance, “…When morning came, the east wind had brought the locusts. …They devoured all the vegetation and all the fruit of the trees that the hail had spread.” – The Bible, Exodus (10: 13–15). Indeed, it could be an apocalypse for those people who observed Locust swarms in action.

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Fig. 2. A Locust gargoyle in the two-storey cloister of the Jerónimos Monastery (16th century, Lisbon, Portugal). © Dmitri V. Logunov (Manchester, UK).

Therefore, it is hardly surprising that ecclesiastic institutions of early medieval Christian Europe portrayed Locusts as chimeras, demonic and malevolent creatures (Fig. 3, on the left). Such visualization reflected the prevailing theological conceptions of Locust as an instrument of divine vengeance. Its more or less human-like head reflected the mind needed to separate sinners from pious people; the strong wings were needed to fly over humans in order to administer the justice; the scorpion-like tail was the main tool of chastise; etc. Such depiction of the Locust is a striking example of the distortion of human perception induced by the symbolic view of reality, which was introduced by theologians. No doubts, even in the sixteen century people knew very well how real insects look like (Fig. 3, on the right).

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Fig. 3. Two contrast depictions of Locusts. On the left: A section of the Monogrammist HW, “Natuerliche Contrafeyhing…”, dated 1556, a diabolic depicting of the locust (Zürich; modified from Ritterbush, 1969: fig. 2). – On the right: A section of the plate from “Archetypica studiaque patris Georgii Hoefnagelii”, dated 1592, a realistic depiction of the locust; from the archives of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (from Smith, 1986: plate 13).

Despite some Locusts are great pests in many parts of the world, human attitude towards them is not particularly cruel. In India, when a swarm of Bombay Locusts (Nomadacris succincta) comes, people just try to scare them away by lighting fires, beating brass pots, and ringing the temple bell. In Uttar Pradesh, people catch one Locust, decorate its heard with a spot of red lead, salaam to it, and let it go; thereupon people believe that it will immediately depart with all its companions.

There is at least one benefit of having locusts in swarms: they can be harvested and used as food (Fig. 4; see also here). The Arabs boil them with salt, and then add a little oil or butter; sometimes they toast them by the fire before eating them. In Madagascar, there is a common saying: “One needs to waken early in the morning to catch grasshoppers”. About 80 grasshopper/locust species are consumed worldwide. In Morocco, even the price of provision falls when the Locusts appear. The main problem with consuming Locusts is that due to their status of agricultural pests they may be sprayed with insecticides in governmental control programmes, which makes them a polluted food.

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Fig. 4. Locusts are ready for consumption. © J. Princess.

In some other cultures, for instance, those of Native Americans, the relationships between Locust-like insects and man were less dramatic than in medieval Europe, although not fully friendly. The following animation ‘Banquet’ is loosely based on an old folktale by Yaqui people from northern Mexico. It is about a Grasshopper and a Cricket that attended an Indian banquet. They ate and drank with the Chief but behaved badly, so that Yaqui people did not want them coming back.

Created by Eva Akesson, a BA Animation student of the Manchester School of Art at the Manchester Metropolitan University in 2016. Music composed by Peter Byrom-Smith and performed by the Guild Hall Collective, conducted by Rod Skipp.

Control of Locusts is a challenge. Some says that no attempt to control locusts or bring down the swarm has ever succeeded – in each case the plague disappeared only when nature had run its course. Globally, the costs of combating this plague were colossal, over 300 million US$. It is believed that recent plagues happened mainly due to the decline of co-operation between neighbouring countries. Survey and control operations often have to be carried out in important breeding areas in which access is severely restricted due to civil conflicts and general insecurity (some regions of Algeria, Somalia, Yemen, Sudan and others). Thus, the true key issues of locust control now are not the lack of scientific knowledge or technical means, but a problem of socio-political organization which cannot be controlled by scientists. Unless this basic issue is resolved, alas, humans will always be at the mercy of nature when it comes to dealing with locust plagues.

 Further reading

Chapman, R.F. 1976. A Biology of Locusts, Studies in Biology no. 71, Edward Arnold, Great Britain.

Logunov, D.V. 2006. Locusts: God’s wrath or revelation. Biological Sciences Review, 19(1): 6-9.

Kritsky G. & Cherry R. 2000. Insect Mythology. Writer Club Press, San Jose, New York, Lincoln, Shanghai.

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