Desert locust, Schistocerca gregaria: male (on top) and female (below) mating

Locusts are the swarming phase of short-horned grasshoppers of the family Acrididae. These are species that can breed rapidly under suitable conditions and subsequently become gregarious and migratory. They form bands as nymphs and swarms as adults—both of which can travel great distances, rapidly stripping fields and greatly damaging crops.

The origin and apparent extinction of certain species of locust – some of which reached 6 inches (150 mm) in length – are unclear.[1]

Locusts are an edible insect and are considered a delicacy in some countries and in history.[2]


Locust species

Though the female and the male look alike, they can be distinguished by looking at the end of their abdomens. The male has a boat-shaped tip, while the female has two serrated valves that can be either apart or kept together. These valves aid in the digging of the hole in which an egg pod is deposited. Desert locusts can measure roughly 75 millimetres (3.0 in) in length.

In addition, a number of "grasshopper" species such as the Senegalese grasshopper Oedaleus senegalensis, and the rice grasshopper Hieroglyphus daganensis (both from the Sahel), often display locust-like behaviour and change morphologically on crowding.

Swarming behaviour and extinctions

Locust from the 1915 Locust Plague

There is no taxonomic difference between locust and grasshopper species, and in English the term "locust" is used for grasshopper species that change morphologically and behaviourally on crowding, to form swarms or hopper bands (of immature stages). These changes, or phase polymorphism, were first identified by Sir Boris Petrovich Uvarov, who studied the desert locust, whose solitary and gregarious phases had previously been thought of as separate species. Charles Valentine Riley and Norman Criddle were also involved in the understanding and destructive control of locusts.

Research at Oxford University has identified that swarming behaviour is a response to overcrowding. Increased tactile stimulation of the hind legs causes an increase in levels of serotonin.[3] This causes the locust to change colour, eat much more, and breed much more easily. The transformation of the locust to the swarming variety is induced by several contacts per minute over a four-hour period.[4] It is estimated that the largest swarms have covered hundreds of square miles and consisted of many billions of locusts.

Six stages of development, from newly hatched nymph to fully winged adult. (Melanoplus sanguinipes)

The extinction of the Rocky Mountain Locust has been a source of puzzlement. Recent research suggests that the breeding grounds of this insect in the valleys of the Rocky Mountains came under sustained agricultural development during the large influx of gold miners,[1] destroying the underground eggs of the locust.[5][6]

In a paper in the 30 January 2009 edition of the AAAS magazine Science, Anstey & Rogers et al. showed that when desert locusts meet up, their nervous systems release serotonin, which causes them to become mutually attracted, a prerequisite for swarming.[7][8]

Locust swarms and locust control

Swarming grasshopper have short feelers, or antennae, and hearing organs on the abdomen (rear segment of the body). As winged adults, flying in swarms, locusts may be carried by the wind hundreds of miles from their breeding grounds; on landing they devour all vegetation. Locusts occur in nearly every continent.

The migratory locust (Locusta migratoria) ranges from Europe to China, and even small swarms may cover several square miles, and weigh thousands of tons. Control by spreading poisoned food among the bands is very effective, but it is cheaper to spray concentrated insecticide solutions from aircraft over the insects or the vegetation on which they feed. They eat the equivalent of their own weight in a day, and, flying at night with the wind, may cover some 500 kilometres (310 mi). The largest known swarm covered 1,036 square kilometres (400 sq mi), comprising approximately 40 billion insects.

A biological pesticide to control locusts was being trialled across Africa by a multinational team in 1997. Dried fungal spores sprayed in breeding areas pierce the locust exoskeleton on germination and invade the body cavity, causing death. The fungus is passed from insect to insect and persists in the area, making repeated treatments unnecessary.

Locusts as experimental models

Locusts are used as models in many fields of biology, especially in the field of olfactory, visual and locomotor neurophysiology. It is one of the organisms for which scientists have obtained detailed data on information processing in the olfactory pathway of organisms. It is suitable for the above purposes because of the robustness of the preparation for electrophysiological experiments and ease of growing them.

The International LUBILOSA Programme was set up to find methods of nonchemical control of locusts. Not only did it successfully develop the mycoinsecticide 'Green Muscle', but over its 12-year period, Programme staff also contributed a large number of scientific papers on subjects as diverse as fungal production, (bio)pesticide application, socio-economics and thermal ecology. Locusts thus provided a valuable "test bed" for better biological understanding and developing new technologies for microbial pesticides.

Locusts in literature and film

Oxya yezoensis, the rice grasshopper

Plagues of locusts appear in both the Bible and the Koran,[9] including one of the biblical Plagues of Egypt, where locusts ate all the crops of Egypt.


In the 2010 Supernatural episode "The Third Man", the character Ed Colfax, played by Justin Reinsilber, has his head eaten from the inside out by three locusts.

In her novel On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura Ingalls Wilder writes of a "glittering cloud" of locusts so large it blocked out the sun as it approached. The swarm descended upon her family's farm near Walnut Grove, Minnesota, destroying a month's wheat crop and stripping the prairie bare of all vegetation.

In the film Exorcist II: The Heretic, the demon Pazuzu appears near the climax as a swarm of locusts, the symbolism implying that both are considered an omen of evil and are destructive.

Doris Lessing wrote a vivid short story, "A Mild Attack of Locusts". The story, published in the February 26, 1955 issue of The New Yorker, is set in the South African countryside and describes how a family of farmers attempts to resist the attack, to prevent and minimize the damage and to come to terms with the loss of crops.

Chinua Achebe has a swarm of locusts as a gleefully received human food source in his 1958 novel Things Fall Apart.

In Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, the cow herd experiences being in the path of a swarm of locusts whose passage lasts several hours and which strips the prairie grass around them down to the nub, and even chews on the cowboys' clothing.

The 1957 classic horror film Beginning of the End starring Richard Denning and Peggie Castle featured mutated grasshoppers grown to the size of a bus as they descended on the city of Chicago.

In the 1971 cult horror classic The Abominable Doctor Phibes starring Vincent Price, the nurse who assisted the medical team Phibes blamed for the death of his wife is eaten by locusts - the eighth "Plague of Egypt" which forms the modus operandi of Phibes' murders.

The 1978 film Days of Heaven depicts a swarm of locusts ravaging wheat fields of the Texas Panhandle, and the efforts of farmhands to eradicate the infestation.

In the graphic novel Bone, the main villain is called "The Lord of the Locusts" or even simply "The Locust" because it commands and controls all locusts.

In the film "Nowhere In Africa", a swarm of locusts descends on the farm. The principal characters of the film and the farm hands are seen beating the locusts with shirts and sticks, apparently being largely successful in preventing the total destruction of the crop.

In the film Independence Day the alien's agenda is compared to that of Locusts, where they consume all of a planet's natural resources and then move on.

The 1937 film The Good Earth, set in China, features a massive locust swarm for its climax.

The Day of the Locust with biblical allusions to the Plagues of Egypt.

In the 1998 children's novel, The Great Turkey Walk, Kathleen Karr writes of a fifteen-year-old boy from the 1860s whom others see as simple-minded. Not able to graduate to the 4th grade, he tries his career luck at herding 1,000 turkeys from Missouri to Colorado. On the way, his ever-increasingly hungry turkeys have a delightful treat as the boy and his herding buddies take shelter during a locust swarm.

The 1999 film The Mummy, set largely in Egypt, reviewed some of the plagues of Egypt including locusts.

The 2005 short story collection 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill contained "You Will Hear the Locust Sing". 18-year-old Francis wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a locust.

In a scene from the 2007 film The Reaping, a locust swarm appears to be controlled by a little girl.

Related uses of the word "locust"

Egyptian grasshopper Anacridium aegyptum

The word "locust" is derived from the Vulgar Latin locusta, which was originally used to refer to various types of crustaceans and insects; English "lobster" is derived from Anglo-Saxon loppestre, which may come from Latin locusta.[10] Spanish has mostly preserved the original Latin usage, since the cognate term langosta can be used to refer both to a variety of lobster-like crustaceans and to the swarming grasshopper, while semantic confusion is avoided by employing qualifiers such as de la tierra (of the land) when referring to grasshoppers, del mar and del rio (of the sea/of the river) when referring to lobsters and crayfish respectively.[11] French presents an inverse case; during the 16th century, the word sauterelle (literally "little hopper") could mean either grasshopper or lobster (sauterelle de mer).[12] In contemporary French usage, langouste is used almost exclusively to refer to the crustacean (two insect exceptions being the langouste de désert and the langouste de Provence).[13][14] In certain regional varieties of English, "locust" can refer to the large swarming grasshopper, the cicada (which may also swarm), and rarely to the praying mantis ("praying locust").[15]

The use of "locust" in English as a synonym for "lobster" has no grounding in anglophone tradition, and most modern instances of its use are usually calques of foreign expressions (e.g. "sea locust" as mistranslation of langouste de mer).[16] There are, however, various species of crustaceans whose regional names include the word "locust." Thenus orientalis, for example, is sometimes referred to as the flathead locust lobster (its French name, Cigale raquette, literally "raquet cicada," is yet another instance of the locust-cicada-lobster nomenclatural connection). Similarly, certain types of amphibians and birds are sometimes called "false locusts" in imitation of the Greek pseud(o)acris, a scientific name sometimes given to a species because of its perceived cricket-like chirping.[17] Often, the linguistic nondifferentiation of animals not only regarded by science as different species, but that also often exist in radically different environments, is the result of culturally perceived similarities between organisms, as well as of abstract associations formed within a particular group's mythology and folklore (see Cicada mythology). On a linguistic level, these cases also exemplify an extensively documented tendency, in many languages, towards conservatism and economy in neologization, with some languages historically only allowing for the expansion of meaning within already existing word-forms.[18] Also of note is the fact that all three so-called locusts (the grasshopper, the cicada, and the lobster) have been a traditional source of food for various peoples around the world (see entomophagy).

The word "locust" has, at times, been employed controversially in English translations of Ancient Greek and Latin natural histories, as well as of Hebrew and Greek Bibles; such ambiguous renderings prompted the 17th-century polymath Thomas Browne to include in the Fifth Book of his Pseudodoxia Epidemica an essay entitled Of the Picture of a Grasshopper, it begins:

There is also among us a common description and picture of a Grasshopper, as may be observed in the pictures of Emblematists, in the coats of several families, and as the word Cicada is usually translated in Dictionaries. Wherein to speak strictly, if by this word Grasshopper, we understand that animal which is implied by τέτιξ with the Greeks, and by Cicada with the Latines; we may with safety affirm the picture is widely mistaken, and that for ought enquiry can inform, there is no such insect in England.[19]

Browne revisited the controversy in his Miscellany Tracts (1684), wherein he takes pains (even citing Aristotle's Animalia) to both indicate the relationship of locusts to grasshoppers and to affirm their like disparateness from cicadas:

That which we commonly call a Grasshopper, and the French Saulterelle being one kind of Locust, so rendered in the plague of Ægypt, and in old Saxon named Gersthop.[20]

Compound words involving "locust" have also been used by anglophone translators as calques of archaic Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, or other language names for animals; the resulting formations have, just as in the case of the Brownian grasshopper/cicada controversy, been, at times, a cause of lexical ambiguity and false polysemy in English. An instance of this appears in a translation of Pliny included in J.W. McCrindle's book Ancient India as Described in Classical Literature, where an Indian gem is said by the Roman historian to have a "surface [that] is even redder than the shells of the sea-locust."[21]

Human consumption of locusts

Skewered locusts in Beijing, China

While several cultures throughout the world are known to consume insects, Islamic and Jewish dietary laws are notable for prohibiting the consumption of other insects while allowing some locusts to be eaten.[22][23] See also: Kosher locust.

Professor Arnold van Huis at Wageningen University in Netherlands says locusts can produce 1 kg of protein from 2 kg of fodder, compared to a cow needing 10 kg of fodder to produce the same amount of protein. Also of benefit, locusts do not produce greenhouse gases and do not require antibiotics.[24]

See also


  1. ^ a b Encarta Reference Library Premium 2005 DVD. Rocky Mountain Locust.
  2. ^ Alison Fromme (2005). "Edible Insects". Smithsonian Zoogoer (Smithsonian Institution) 34 (4). 
  3. ^ James Morgan (January 29, 2009). "Locust swarms 'high' on serotonin". BBC News. Retrieved May 18, 2011. 
  4. ^ Stephen M. Rogers, Thomas Matheson, Emma Despland, Timothy Dodgson, Malcolm Burrows & Stephen J. Simpson (2003). "Mechanosensory-induced behavioural gregarization in the desert locust Schistocerca gregaria" (PDF). Journal of Experimental Biology 206 (22): 3991–4002. doi:10.1242/jeb.00648. PMID 14555739. 
  5. ^ Lisa Levitt Ryckman (June 22, 1999). "The great locust mystery". Rocky Mountain News. Archived from the original on February 28, 2007. Retrieved May 20, 2007. 
  6. ^ Jeffrey A. Lockwood (2005). Locust: the Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier. Basic Books. ISBN 9780465041671. 
  7. ^ P. A. Stevenson (January 2009). "The key to Pandora's box". Science 323 (5914): 594–595. doi:10.1126/science.1169280. PMID 19179520. 
  8. ^ Ewen Callaway (January 29, 2009). "Blocking 'happiness' chemical may prevent locust plagues". New scientist. Retrieved January 31, 2009. 
  9. ^ Allan T. Showler (2008). "Desert locust, Schistocerca gregaria Forskål (Orthoptera: Acrididae} plagues". In John L. Capinera. Encyclopedia of Entomology. Springer. pp. 1181–1186. ISBN 9781402062421. 
  10. ^
  12. ^ Histoire entière des poissons
  13. ^ Diseases and pests of animals and plants
  14. ^ La Saga des Magiciennes dentelées
  15. ^ Of the erectness of man
  16. ^ Marseille Dining
  17. ^ Pseudoacris crucifer
  18. ^ Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech
  19. ^ Of the Picture of a Grasshopper
  20. ^ An Answer to Certain Queries Relating to Fishes, Birds, and Insects
  21. ^ Pliny: Indian Minerals and Precious Stones
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^ Global Steak - Demain nos enfants mangeront des criquets (2010 French documentary).

Further reading

  • Alexandra M. Wagner (Winter 2008). "Grasshoppered: America's response to the 1874 Rocky Mountain locust invasion". Nebraska History 89 (4): 154–167. 
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