The Sidney Sun-Telegraph - Serving proudly since 1873 as the beautiful Nebraska Panhandle's first newspaper

By William H. Benson
Columnist 

Pestilence

 

On June 26, 1284, officials in a German town called Hamelin hired a musician to rid the town of its rats. The “rat-catcher’s magical flute” hypnotized the rats that followed the piper out of Hamelin’s gates and into the Weser River, where they all drowned.

Although the story is based upon verifiable historical facts, it has since passed into folklore, as a fairy tale once told by the Brothers Grimm. One can only wish for as simple a solution as a magic flute to drown and destroy all forms of pestilence.

For example, the wheat stem sawfly severely reduced yields in this year’s winter wheat crop.

Long a threat to spring wheat production in the northern plains of North and South Dakota, and Montana, “it has now emerged as a significant pest of winter wheat as well,” in southeastern Wyoming, Nebraska’s Panhandle, and also, since 2010, in northeastern Colorado.

The female sawfly, “wasplike in appearance, with a shiny black body with three yellow bands around her abdomen,” lays 30 to 50 eggs” inside a wheat stem. The larvae then crawl down the stem towards soil level, where it cuts a notch in the stem. The upper stem then breaks off just before harvest.

Various forms of insect infestations have plagued the western states since the first settlers arrived.

Brigham Young arrived in the Great Salt Lake area on July 24, 1847. He and his fellow Mormons were determined to build farms there, but the crickets, actually katydids, most impressed them.

“The ground seems alive with very large black crickets crawling around the grass and bushes,” said one farmer. Brigham Young said, “Mammoth crickets abound in the borders of the Valley.”

Early the next spring they plowed the soil and planted seeds, hopeful of a good crop. A farmer said, “wheat, corn, beans, and peas are all up and looking grand, and grass is 6 inches high.”

Then, in mid-May, a swarm of the dreaded crickets attacked the tender young green plants.

One of Young’s wives said, “the crickets came by millions, sweeping everything before them. They first attacked a patch of beans, and in twenty minutes, there was not a vestige of them to be seen. They next swept over the peas. We went out with a brush to drive them out, but they were too strong for us.”

Horrified, the Mormons tried to combat this army of invaders with noise, mallets, fire, and water. One technique they tried was for two guys to pull a rope back and forth across the tops of the grain to knock the climbing crickets off the stem, before they reached the heads and devoured the grain kernels.

Nothing seemed to work though, because of the crickets’ vast numbers. Then, on June 9, they witnessed, what they later called, a miracle, when seagulls arrived and began consuming the crickets.

In a letter to Brigham Young, his fellow farmers wrote, “The sea gulls have come in large flocks from the lake and sweep the crickets as they go.” The Mormons claim that those gulls saved the Mormons’ crop that season.

Utah’s state bird is now the California gull, and a monument to that gull stands in front of the Salt Lake Assembly Hall on Temple Square, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Another insect invasion occurred, but this time on the Great Plains. Called the Locust Plague of 1874, it began on July 20, when a swarm of the Rocky Mountain locusts — migratory and destructive grasshoppers — fled east, from the mountains onto the plains, in a frantic search for food.

The swarm soon stretched from Canada and the Dakotas in the north, to as far south as Texas. Residents throughout the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, eastern Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa, Oklahoma and Missouri all witnessed the locusts’ destructive talent.

An editor of a Wichita newspaper wrote,

“They came upon us in great numbers, in untold millions, in clouds upon clouds, until their fluttering wings looked like a sweeping snowstorm in the heavens, until their dark bodies covered everything green upon the earth.

“In a few hours many fields that had hung thick with long ears of golden maize were stripped of their value and left only a forest of bare yellow stalks that in their nakedness mocked the farmer.”

A New York Times reporter, in Kansas, said, “The air is literally alive with them. They beat against the houses, swarm in at the windows, covering the passing trains. They work as if sent to destroy.”

Bad news soon turned good. The next spring, “a late snowstorm and a hard frost killed most of the immature insects, trillions of them, allowing farmers time to replant their crops.” As the years passed, the Rocky Mountain locust thinned, disappeared, and went extinct. It was last seen in 1902.

Of pestilence, the poets write, “The locust has no king, just noise and hard language.” “He who desires, but acts not, breeds pestilence.” I say, find that magic flute, and pay the piper.

 

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