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Monday, 6 August, 2001, 23:47 GMT 00:47 UK
Utah hopping mad over crickets
Crickets in Utah BBC
Crickets on the warpath
By David Willis in Eureka, Utah

They produce the soothing sound of summer, but it seems that crickets in sufficient numbers are anything but a symphony in the US state of Utah.

They have become a plague, causing more than $25m in crop damage, and prompting Governor Mike Leavitt to declare an agricultural state of emergency.


They eat the hay, they eat the grass, they eat the brush, sticks and they even eat themselves

Spencer Douglas
Farmer
In the fields around Utah, the unsettling chirruping of crickets prompts this reaction from Eureka city manager, Fred Garvett:

"They're nasty, they're ugly, they're noisy - and they eat your tomato plants!"

The countryside is crawling with them - big brown insects that have already gnawed their way through two million acres of land, and show no signs of stopping.

Devouring

Farmer Spencer Douglas has lost half his crop of hay to the insects.

Female cricket laying eggs BBC
They reproduce at a prodigious rate
"They're everywhere you know. They eat everything in their sight too," he said.

"They eat the hay, they eat the grass, they eat the brush, sticks and they even eat themselves. I've never seen anything like it."

"They eat each other?" I asked him. "They eat each other!" was Mr Douglas's incredulous reply. But the crickets are not devouring themselves fast enough.

Bug war

Setting off through the fields by motorbike is Scott Overson, whose job it is to control the crickets.


Sometimes I feel like we're going to war. We're fighting a lot of bugs

Scott Overson
Pest controller
Mr Overson said: "You've gotta figure out how they are moving - you keep stripping your way through them - you thin, you thin, you thin."

From the back of his motorbike he is scattering wheat mixed with poison. But it is like whistling in the wind. Budget cuts mean that Scott is one of only two people employed to fight crickets across the entire state.

"Sometimes I feel like we're going to war. We're fighting a lot of bugs," said Mr Overson. And the bugs are winning.

Mixing wheat with poison BBC
Wheat mixed with poison is some use - but not much
Capable of hopping up to a mile (1.6 km) a day, the crickets are invading homes as well as fields, climbing up garage walls, across roofs, and down chimneys.

"You have one million crickets this year," Ed Bianco of the Utah Department of Agriculture told me. And he has been doing his sums.

"Say that's 500,000 females and they average 100 eggs. You can see how the population will explode and if the conditions are just right that just may happen."

Cricket plague

Utah, of course, has been here before. The state's first settlers - Mormons who came here 150 years ago - were almost wiped out by a plague of crickets.


All we can do is pray. We prayed before and it worked and maybe we will pray again and it will work again

Richard Oman
Mormon Museum of Church History
The desperate attempt of early Mormons like Brigham Young to protect their crops was dramatised in an early feature film.

"Brigham, c'mon quick there's crickets - millions of them, coming down the mountain," came the cry.

And the story continued: "The sky is black with seagulls - they're heading towards the field!" But salvation came. "Look - they're eating the crickets!"

The early settlers of the Salt Lake Valley were saved only when a flock of hungry seagulls swooped in.

The locust plague as dramatised by 20th Century Fox
Mormons were saved from their locust plague by seagulls
That is how the seagull became the state bird, with its own monument near the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City.

Richard Oman of the museum of church history has this message: "All we can do is pray. We prayed before and it worked and maybe we will pray again and it will work again."

A little help from above would certainly be welcome. Or failing that a harsh winter. Nothing less, say the locals, will prevent next year's cricket season from being even worse than it has been this year.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's David Willis
"The countryside is crawling with uninvited visitors"
See also:

15 Jun 00 | Asia-Pacific
China plagued by locusts
23 Jul 99 | Asia-Pacific
Locusts swarm across Central Asia
11 Oct 99 | Sci/Tech
Hopes for stopping locusts
27 Apr 00 | Asia-Pacific
Australia faces plague of locusts
25 Aug 98 | Asia-Pacific
Fowl plot to hunt Chinese locusts
22 Jun 01 | Media reports
Russia combats locust plague
19 Mar 01 | Americas
Mormons under pressure on drink
06 Feb 01 | Americas
Utah loves Jell-O - official
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