Imagine looking up to see an ominous black cloud on the horizon. Now imagine your growing horror as you watch that cloud reveal itself as an immense, miles-wide swarm of ravenous insects. In Locust
, entomologist Jeffrey A. Lockwood reveals the bizarre history of a bug responsible for killing countless settlers on the American plains. First-hand accounts of the Rocky Mountain locust's horrific depredations are reproduced in the book, and Lockwood adds his own vivid reconstructions:
We expect grasshoppers and locusts to consume our gardens and fields, but when these insects begin to feed on fabric and flesh something seems demonically amiss.... Although the settlers may have been astonished by the locusts' voracity, they were appalled by the insects' fierce cannibalism.
Swarms of locusts would touch down like tornadoes on homesteads and farms, stripping away every growing thing and desperately eating other insects in search of much-needed fat and protein. These hordes were thought by many, including the Mormon settlers in Utah, to be divine punishments, or at least signs from above. After describing the effects this insect had on the American frontier, Lockwood delves into the entomologic mystery of the locusts' abrupt disappearance. Had they become extinct? Or gone into hiding in some ecological refuge? When Lockwood abandons history for science, his glee for his subject keeps the book moving, albeit slower than in the first few chapters. --Therese Littleton
From Publishers Weekly
There's no dearth of eye-opening facts in this mostly fascinating, occasionally daunting, story of scientific sleuthing. Among them: North America is now the only inhabited continent without a locust species; in the years of greatest plague, 1874-1877, voracious swarms devoured half of America's annual agricultural production; the vast infestation of 1875 comprised perhaps 3.5 trillion locusts, an incomprehensible biomass stacked as much as half a mile high, 110 miles wide and 1,800 miles long; and (Fear Factor
fans, take note) locusts, along with grasshoppers and crickets, were touted by one early entomologist as a nutritiously efficient food source. Lockwood (Grasshopper Dreaming
), who fancies himself the Columbo of this particular disappearing-bug mystery, sometimes loses his lay readers in the fussiness of scientific methodology and the minutiae of genus nomenclature-including why the still-extant grasshopper is not a locust (however, the aside, "We spend a lot of time peering at grasshopper penises," does cut nicely through the fog of jargon). His account details years of combing crumbling archives, dissecting desiccated specimens and finally drilling into fast-melting Rocky Mountain glaciers to retrieve slushy locust body parts-an obsessive quest to discover why a species unexpectedly vanished a century ago in just a few years. This is a compelling work of popular science and ecological conjecture, buttressed smartly by an observant cultural, political, agricultural and economic history of 19th-century frontier America.
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