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Big, ugly, stinky bugs taking over Nevada Mormon crickets threaten crops near Reno

Larry D. Hatfield, Chronicle Staff Writer Saturday, May 19, 2001 2001 San Francisco Chronicle


They're big, they're ugly, they're scary, they stink and they're all over the place.

Huge bands of crop and flower-eating Mormon crickets are marching around northern Nevada for the third spring in a row. It is the worst infestation by the little buggers since the early 1970s, according to Jeff Knight, an entomologist for the Nevada Department of Agriculture.

They have homeowners, particularly in the Red Rock area north of Reno, disgusted and they have agricultural officials wary of major economic damage to Nevada's rural economy.

"We had them last year, and they were huge," said Lorena Clark, who works for Red Rock Estates. "This year, they're having their babies. You can't kill them. They're hard little suckers, and they're ugly."

"It would really be a disaster if they built up into big numbers and attacked alfalfa, which is our biggest crop," said Robert Gronowski, administrator of the plant industry division of the agriculture department.

"If we lose one of (a season's) three cuttings, farmers lose a third of their income, and that's a major blow to the rural economy. These things can get out of control, harming agriculture and throwing rural economies into real trouble. Some of these rural economies are barely hanging on as it is."

The most recent Hitchcockesque invasion of the critters started a few weeks ago, although officials described the infestation as the continuation of a surge in numbers first noticed three years ago.

Teams of entomologists and others will fan out Monday and Tuesday to see how extensive the invasion is.

The crickets are all over the booming residential area north of Reno, and Gronowski said there are hot spots in the Winnemucca area.

In the latter area, if the bugs start moving off federal rangeland into fields, Nevada will ask for federal help to eradicate them.

There has been some alfalfa damage already, he said, although losses have not been tabulated.

The Mormon cricket, so named because it is related to long-horned grasshoppers, which nearly destroyed the crops of Utah's Mormon settlers in 1848, isn't technically a cricket, although it falls under the same entomological umbrella as other orthopterous insects.

It's actually a shieldbacked katydid (family Tettigoniidae, subfamily Decticinae) that lives in western North America in rangeland dominated by sagebrush and forbs.

It has an adult life span of only about 20 days, but in that time, it can eat four times its weight in vegetation every single day (it weighs in at about 960 milligrams (about a third of an ounce) and can consume 3.5 grams of vegetation daily). Scientists say that at a density of one per square yard, the Mormon cricket consumes an amount of range land forage equal to 38 pounds per acre.

The current infestation is estimated at eight to 12 insects per square yard and increasing, Gronowski said. "When they're banding up and moving around, they get huge numbers."

The hundreds of thousands of insects now hatching and growing are from eggs laid last summer. A mild, relatively dry winter increased the survival rate of the nymphs during the current hatching season.

Although the Mormon cricket breeds infrequently in cultivated fields, migrating bands of nymphs or adults can consume entire fields of sugar beets, small grains and alfalfa. During one bad year, 1937, crop damage in Montana amounted to $500,000 and in Wyoming to $383,000.

Knight says there are six or seven bands of the crickets roaming Nevada. For him, it's fun, he said. "This is a once or twice in a career experience for an entomologist."

Persistent drought throughout the West is expected to make the problem worse. And environmental restrictions that didn't exist in past major outbreaks limit the treatment of the crickets until they spread from rangeland to cropland.

A major outbreak that began in 1931 continued for 17 years and at its peak, 19 million acres in 11 states were infested.

This year's infestation is reminiscent of 1990, when the crickets cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in crop losses and control programs.

"We spent $300,000 to keep them from causing more problems than they did, but they still ate a lot of trees, shrubbery, everything," Gronowski said.

"We have twice the number we had last year," he said of the invasion centered in northern Washoe County.

"There are (several) bands moving back and forth . . . Crickets kind of behave oddly. They'll go five miles in one direction one day and turn around and go back five miles the next day."

Gronowski said the insects are ugly and otherwise repellent -- "They can grow to seven inches and get pretty fat." Beyond that, he said, "when they're moving around and aggregated, they put out an odor -- a funny musty smell. That's one of the problems with them, they do stink."

But their real nuisance comes from their appetite.

They emit a chemical which apparently makes them band together and march in single file. Though they can't fly, they can move significant distances in search of food.

At the moment, the best supper table seems to be in Red Rock and they're marching into people's nicely kept yards, eating whatever's available.

"It looks like drought emergencies are going to have to be declared to get some help," Gronowski said. "They eat anything green and these ranchettes are the only green things out there.

"I know of one lady who planted $200 worth of bedding plants out at Red Rock and they wiped them out in five minutes."

Knight said the current marauding crickets are essentially teenagers, only half way to their full adult size.

But that makes little different to Lorena Clark. "They're only an inch and a half now but they'll still cover the road," she said. "And some houses they really like, so they cover the house. They move in giant waves."

Although they do emit a chirping sound, Clark said that noise isn't what disgusts her most. "When you pop them, they do (make noise). They're hard and you have to squish them to get rid of them. They get on the road, you run over them and they go pop, pop, pop."

Gronowski said that in the past, the crickets have become so thick they had to be graded off.

Knight said the current attack should die down by late August and the weather between now and then will affect how this summer's egg-laying, and next spring's hatching, is affected.

"And there's no predicting that," he said.

-- Martin Thompson (, May 19, 2001


Sounds like a crop duster loaded with DE [diatomaceous earth] would do wonders! A cheap and simple solution, that is NON toxic.
You just don't want to breathe it. A fine dust that will annoy your lungs. DE, an ultra fine silca powder, grinds the joints of insects which causes them to dehydrate, even if they sit in a cup of water.

-- (, May 19, 2001.

I hope I never get on your bad side.

-- David Williams (, May 20, 2001.

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