While the world reels under the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic, another plague has started to develop. The Coronavirus started in China while this one is ravaging South Asia, the Middle East, and East Africa. This new plague doesn’t infect humans, instead, it is a large swarm of locusts. They threaten to plunge the world into further chaos by causing acute food shortages. They are destroying crops and ravaging them, leaving carnage in their wake. The locusts and Coronavirus together will decimate the economy of these regions and push people into starvation. Billions of insects are forming swarms in the worst locust infestation of all times in these regions.
Another plague- What this means
Crops like wheat, sorghum, and teff which staple crops, are being attacked by huge swarms of locusts. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has also taken cognizance of this fact. In just Yemen and Eastern Africa, about 42 million people will face food shortages in 2020. Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia are seeing the worst locust outbreak in decades. Billions of insects have come together to form swarms and they are covering thousands of acres. Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, and India are too suffering from another plague- locust infestation. India is also dealing with cyclone Amphan’s landfall.
These swarms of billions of insects have already destroyed all the crops in some areas. Aircraft are having to divert because the locust swarms have become so dense. When Iran sprayed insecticides in the infected areas, there was a 6-inch layer of dead locusts. Locust swarms form irregularly and hence there is no pre-emptive action that is possible. Sometimes, locust swarms aren’t seen for years at an end. The weather over the past year was favorable for these swarms and hence a lot of these insects have shown up. This is a precarious situation since they are destroying crops in a world already ravaged by a pandemic.
Reasons behind Locust swarms
Certain species of grasshoppers that are short-horned are called locusts. They can completely change in terms of their behavior and appearance when the environment is right. The grasshopper has about 7000 species in total and out of these 20 are categorized as locusts. They are largely omnipresent but they’re rarely in numbers that form swarms. Schistocerca gregaria is the species that is forming these swarms in Asia and Africa right now. This species normally lives in a solitary mode without aggressively attacking any crops. However, every once in a while, the weather conditions are ideal and there is a population explosion.
Due to this population explosion, there is a significant change in the behavior of these insects. These solitary insects are now nearby to many other insects of the same species. They now become gregarious and start becoming a single unit. They move and behave in sync rather than as distinct individuals. It’s not only their behavioral traits that change, they undergo physical changes too. Their body color changes from green or brown to a bright yellow. Their body shape also undergoes a significant change. As compared to their solitary phase, their brains become larger and their bodies become smaller. The physical changes take some time to reflect while the changes in behavior happen within a few hours itself.
After this physical and behavioral change, these locusts start forming swarms. These swarms have 150 million insects per square kilometer. These 150 million insects eat the same amount as 35,000 people each day. In 2020, swarms have spread over 2,400 square kilometers. These swarms travel by air at speeds of 100 miles per day. They eat away any vegetation that falls in their path. Locust swarms are an international threat to crops and agriculture. The speed and scale of these locust swarms give them a lot of destructive power.
Ideal weather conditions
This year, the weather conditions were ideal for the population boom of locusts and the subsequent formation of swarms. There was heavy rainfall in East Africa and the Middle East. The Indian Ocean Dipole too favored this heavy rainfall and associated population boom of locusts. The western part of the Indian Ocean was warmer this time which lead to more evaporation and rainfall. The Indian Ocean Dipole caused heavy torrential rainfall in India, Yemen, and East Africa. This led to solid growth in the vegetation of these regions and lush greenery was all around.
This led to locusts breeding and multiplying more rapidly since there was no scarcity of food. These locusts had fresh plants as food and they mated and laid eggs rapidly. The locusts started aggregating during the nymph stage itself when they didn’t have wings. When locusts aggregate at the nymph stage, they are easy to control since they don’t have wings yet. Hence, they can’t travel very far. But when they develop wings, it becomes difficult to control them since they are now airborne. After developing wings, these locusts are very hungry and mobile. They cause the most damage at this time.
Fighting these locusts
When another plague like this threatens to destroy all food crops, we can’t just sit and wait for it to pass. Since sometimes there are years in between two locust outbreaks, it is easy to become complacent. To fight these locusts, pesticides need to be sprayed. The pesticides used are small in volume but they need to come in direct contact with locusts to work. Hence, we need to find these locust swarms and spray these pesticides from aircraft or ground vehicles. Only then well they die and their numbers can be managed.
The Coronavirus pandemic is hampering the campaign against these locusts. With global supply chains disrupted, access to pesticides can be an issue. Moreover, curfew and lockdowns limit the movement needed to spray these pesticides. A lot of countries in Africa also lack the equipment and finances to combat this problem.
These locust swarms hit agriculture repeatedly even if it’s after several years. All equipment and pesticides should be sourced and kept locally and in advance. As of now, we must do our best to combat both the Coronavirus and locust infestation.