Book Review: Locust


You’ve probably heard of biblical plagues of locusts, and recurring devastation wrought by the supercharged grasshoppers that comprise the arthropod mob, devastating crops in swathes covering huge areas of land. Maybe you’ve even heard about the locusts in our own country that periodically tormented pioneers west of the Mississippi in the 19th century. Ah, but lately? There have been outbreaks of locusts on other continents, but North America has been quiet in that regard for more than a century.

Jeffrey Lockwood, at the time an entomologist at the University of Wyoming, explores our country’s one native locust, the Rocky Mountain Locust, including theories about its demise, in the aptly named Locust (subtitled “the devastating rise and mysterious disappearance of the insect that shaped the American frontier”). How could an insect with swarms estimated to include trillions, covering an area larger than several states, be declared extinct in 2014 (after having effectively disappeared since 1902)?

It’s a complex tale deftly woven from the strands of science, history, philosophy, and religion that flowed through the United States in the decades immediately following our Civil War. As the prairies and plains were settled and farmed, the pioneers clashed with a population of insects whose periodic, expansive flights had dominated the area for millennia longer than humans had even thought to put seeds in the soil to grow food.

Lockwood includes larger-than-life American characters like Charles Valentine Riley, a charismatic and opinionated entomologist who documented much of the Rocky Mountain Locust’s lifestyle as chairman of the US Entomological Commission’s “Grasshopper Commission,” as well as recounting the many ingenious (if ultimately futile) contraptions invented to help control the locusts via diverse methods of squishing, burning, or drowning.

As it turns to examining the theories surrounding the Rocky Mountain Locust’s ultimate demise, Lockwood’s tale becomes cautionary, drawing parallels with our beloved Monarch butterflies and the challenges they are facing as another insect struggling to survive in a world being quickly and dramatically changed by human activities.

Locust is a history, a mystery, a scientific essay, and an adventure story that ranges from the halls of Congress to the melting glaciers of the Rockies in a quest to understand the rise and fall of a once-fearsome agricultural pest.