Vast swarms of cannibalistic Mormon crickets have become a growing bane for farmers in the American West over the past few years – and climate change is threatening to make the problem even more severe.
A recent report by the Associated Press has chronicled the recent battles against the insect pests in Oregon.
Despite their name, the insects are not crickets (or Mormons). The species is actually a shield-backed katydid. The prefix of their name dates back to the 19th century, when they wreaked havoc on the fields of Mormon settlers in Utah. The insects have a voracious appetite for grain crops, but they can also turn cannibalistic if hungry.
The worst outbreak since the 1940s struck in 2017 around the Arlington area, which one rancher described as “truly biblical.” Local media reports from the time explain that the roads had become covered in a gooey layer of crushed crickets, resulting in car crashes from vehicles slipping on the greasy insect-slick.
Following a harsh outbreak in 2020, last year also saw a particularly nasty outbreak, with an estimated 10 million acres of rangeland in 18 Oregon counties suffering damage from pests.
To battle the problem, Oregon pumped $5 million into a program to suppress the population of Mormon crickets and grasshoppers last year, while an additional $1.2 million was approved earlier this month.
One of the approvement treatments against the bugs is the insecticide diflubenzuron, which inhibits the synthesis of chitin, the tough stuff that makes up the insect exoskeleton. Part of the bug-busting scheme will allow farmers to receive some reimbursement if they treat their crops with diflubenzuron following an infestation.
However, it looks like authorities are fighting an uphill battle. Due to climate change, this part of North America is becoming increasingly arid and drought-stricken. While this is bad news for most species of insect, this is the ideal circumstances for these particular insects to thrive.
Research in 2018 found that insects consume 5 to 20 percent of major grain crops globally, but the amount of yield lost to insects will increase by up to 25 percent per degree Celsius of global warming. As per their findings, insect-induced maize losses in the US could increase by almost 40 percent if climate change is allowed to let rip.
“Temperate regions are currently cooler than what’s optimal for most insects. But if temperatures rise, these insect populations will grow faster,” Scott Merrill, co-author of the 2018 study and researcher at the University of Vermont, said at the time. “They will also need to eat more, because rising temperatures increase insect metabolism. Together, that’s not good for crops.”
Oregon’s ongoing problems with Mormon crickets may be bad, but the worst could be yet to come.