IF YOU CAN'T BEAT EM, EAT 'EM!
Several grasshopper species exhibit population dynamics similar to those of the Mormon Cricket. Especially during one of these population explosions, they are known as “locusts”. This rather vague category includes one of the most important early agricultural pests of the American Great Plains. Until the latter part of the 19th century, the Rocky Mountain Grasshopper (Melanoplus spretus) formed huge migratory swarms billions strong to the east of the Continental Divide. One 1875 aggregation is considered by many to be the most massive insect swarm on record. Eighteen hundred miles long by two hundred miles wide, it blocked the sunlight over most of Colorado and Wyoming. Surprisingly enough, within thirty years the insect was extinct. Today the species only persists in the form of the several centuries old masses frozen into “Grasshopper Glacier,” near Cooke, Montana. The precise mechanics of this extinction are unclear; surely the huge ecological changes of that age, when Midwestern prairie metamorphosed into the American grain belt, were involved. It is often asserted that the grasshoppers bred in riparian areas, which were the most prized land for agriculture, and hence the first to be degraded. One interesting theory holds that they were dependent on the wallows of bison for egg laying sites.
In parts of Africa the Desert Locust (Schistocerca gregaria) undergoes periodic booms of a comparable scale. This is the species of the biblical plagues in Exodus. In 1954 a Kenyan swarm containing an estimated ten billion individuals covered some 200 square kilometers, decimating much of the country’s agricultural yield, and the year before last, the species wreaked havoc on agriculture in the western Sahel.
Although modern Americans and Europeans tend to find the eating of insects abhorrent, it’s not hard to imagine our African ancestors joining the storks, kestrels, lizards and others to feast on such a proteinaceous bounty. S. gregaria has surely been an important food source for as long as humans have dwelt in Africa. In the fourth century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus told of Libyan Berbers eating a mixture of dried grasshoppers and milk. In Herodotus’ own land, grasshoppers were sold in the markets as “four-winged fowl,” but were relegated to the dining tables of the poorer classes; the aristocracy preferred cicadas. Neither entree was without controversy, however. Some three hundred years after Herodotus, Plutarch deemed cicadas sacred, and considered it impious and odious to eat them. The fourth century Greek poet Aristophanes declared the eating of grasshoppers an abomination. With time this sentiment has held sway in Europe, and with the introduction of European agricultural philosophies to colonial Africa, it crossed the Mediterranean. Today blooms of African desert locusts are all too often seen as nutritional disasters rather than opportunities, and are greeted with chemical pesticides instead of cooking utensils.I discovered the pleasant taste of Melanoplus grasshoppers when I was about five, and still enjoy them roasted on a campfire. Like most insects, they are a nutritious food, high in protein, unsaturated fatty acids, and many important minerals and vitamins. During plague years of Rocky Mountain Grasshoppers, the Plains Indians took full dietary advantage of them. Early white explorers told of huge platforms designed for the roasting of locusts. The Shoshones would build a large fire, then drive locusts into it, to later harvest broiled snacks from the coals. As the region was appropriated by white settlers, attitudes toward entomophagy changed accordingly. In 1875, the year of the great Melanoplus spretus swarm, newspapers across the Midwest told of families starving to death because highly nutritious hoppers had destroyed their crops. So jarred was the populace, that in 1877 the Kansas legislature passed the “Grasshopper Army Act,” requiring all able bodied men to assemble into locust-fighting platoons whenever ordered to do so. This law remained on the books until 1923, more than two decades after the extinction of the grasshopper.
The Paiute Indians from my area used to eat Mormon Crickets, using a herding technique similar to that of the Shoshones to persuade the flightless insects into trenches. Their predecessors, the Fremonts, plucked them from the ground in early morning before they became very active. The Utes ground them into a meal, which they mixed with serviceberries to make a cake which was, by all accounts, delicious. By the time these people were replaced by the Mormons, crickets had become a feared nemesis that could only be confronted by prayer and gulls.
upper: SMOKE-JUMPER--APLOMADO FALCON-detail (1994) acrylic 19" x 30"
center: OIL-PALM LOCUST (1997) acrylic 3" x 4"
lower: PASSENGERS OF FORTUNE--NORTHERN CARMINE BEE-EATERS, OSTRICH & DESERT LOCUST (2005) acrylic 40" x 15"