Editor’s note: “A Better Life” is a weekly column by the USU Extension – Tooele Office that focuses on a variety of topics intended to enhance quality of life.
I just stepped off the plane after traveling 36 hours from Agadir, Morocco. I had the opportunity to attend the 13th International Congress of Orthopterology where I presented my research results about predicting grasshopper outbreaks.
What is orthopterology and where is Agadir, Morocco? Orthoptera is the order of insects including grasshoppers, crickets and locusts. Agadir, Morocco, is on the Atlantic coast southwest of the famous Moroccan cities of Casablanca and Marrakech.
Except for my American colleagues, almost no one at the congress knew where Utah was. If they had heard of Utah, it was because they knew of the Utah Jazz. That’s OK because I don’t know where a lot of places are either; I had never heard of Agadir until I was invited to go. While there I met people from all over the world, some from places I had never heard of before. I now have friends from Morocco, Algeria, Australia, Tunisia, Pakistan, Kenya and more.
I never imagined so many people could be interested in grasshoppers, but when grasshopper and locust infestations threaten your existence, someone has to pay attention. I thought we had a good network of individuals working on grasshoppers in the United States, but compared to other parts of the world, especially Africa, we are a small group.
Locust outbreaks are a serious threat in Africa. In Agadir, we toured the Locust Center, which has an impressive infrastructure. The city is prepared for large-scale swarms and plague-like infestations. Locusts are closely related to grasshoppers, but larger. They look like the big, light and brown grasshopper you see flying around in the summer, only longer and with dark flecks.
I put my 4-inch pocket knife next to a locust collection specimen for scale and took a picture. They were the same length. I cannot imagine John the Baptist eating locust and wild honey, but I guess ketchup and French-fries were not available.
I have analyzed 15 years of Utah grasshopper data that was made available to me through the USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). I have worked with the service for my entire career in Tooele. Every year, beginning in spring, APHIS conducts surveys throughout the state of Utah as well as other western states. I am studying interactions between large infestations and the previous year’s weather, specifically precipitation and maximum and minimum temperature.
Together with other researchers, we are looking for a reliable method for predicting outbreaks. It has been shown that the weather in the fall from August to December has some relation to population densities. If we can find an accurate way to predict outbreaks, we can be better prepared to control and maybe even prevent them.
What we found so far is only 30% or less of the variation in densities is explained by weather in the fall. That leaves 70% to other variables or factors that influence their development and increase or decrease in numbers. I’ve got to go back and look at more variables like vegetation, soil conditions, parasites and diseases. In biological systems there are many interrelated factors that may or may not come into play. It may be difficult to predict infestations with a great degree of accuracy, but I am confident we can identify conditions that influence large outbreaks.
I now have a larger pool of friends and colleagues that I met in Agadir. Many of them are working on the same thing — prediction of outbreaks. Other researchers are working on grasshopper conservation, if you can believe that. My job has always been to kill grasshoppers and control large infestations. I attended my first opera as part of the congress. It was about the extinct Rocky Mountain Locust. Imagine that! An opera about a grasshopper!
Linden Greenhalgh is the county director of the USU Extension – Tooele County office, which is located inside the Tooele County Health Department Building, 151 N. Main, Tooele. The phone number is 435-277-2400.