ATTACK OF THE LEGENDARY LOCUST
It defies imagination. A biblical-scale plague of locusts an estimated 500,000 square kilometres in size swept across the U.S. Midwest and into parts of Western Canada in 1875. The ravenous insects ate virtually everything in their path from crops to cloth. Described as a living eclipse of the sun, it is believed to have been the largest insect swarm in recorded history. Perhaps even more extraordinary, within 25 to 30 years of this legendary natural event, the Rocky Mountain locust (Melanoplus spretus) was declared extinct.
American author and entomologist Jeffrey Alan Lockwood noted several eyewitness accounts of the 1875 swarm in his book Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier. “The farmers tried desperately to save their crops and to drive the locusts off, but with little success because of the huge numbers of insects. Many families had to abandon their homesteads and thousands more were threatened by famine, and virtually no food left for themselves or livestock.”
In Manitoba, the locust appeared in 1874 and its attack intensified in 1875, according to writer and historian Bruce Cherney who examined the story of the locust in a May 2012 column in the Winnipeg Regional Real Estate News. Thanksgiving Day 1875 was cancelled in Manitoba. “The locust had killed off any justification for declaring a day of giving thanks for the harvest,” wrote Cherney. “The locust plague destroyed so many crops of fresh vegetables north of Winnipeg that scurvy broke out. Dr. David Young, who practiced near present-day Selkirk, laboured day and night to alleviate the sufferings of those afflicted by the disease caused by vitamin C deficiency.” By 1876 the plague had abated.
Among many theories on the rapid decline of the pest, Lockwood suggested cool, wet conditions that did not favour the locust coincided with increased farming activities in the fertile valleys near the Rocky Mountains. This disturbed the soils in which the locust laid its eggs.
Entomology student Norman Criddle collected what may have been the last live specimens of the locust on his father’s homestead near Treesbank, MB, in 1902. Though extinct, scientists yet find the abundant remains of historic swarms within the layers of Rocky Mountain glaciers.