The Canadian Prairie Province – The Grasshopper Plague : Its History And Incidents

EVERYWHERE we saw traces and heard sad tales of the grasshoppers. Many of the farmers let their fields lie waste rather than plant for them to eat as they had done for two years. In the gardens of Government House and of the Penitentiary, in the old fields at Kildonan and along the banks of both rivers we saw the effects of the ravages. The garden of Deer Lodge was destroyed in a few hours. Mr. McKay had the insects swept up and so filled two bushel baskets. They were scalded in hot water and fed to pigs. It is difficult to form an adequate idea of the numbers that came down and devoured every green thing which they found. One calculating individual gives the following account of his experience :—” When I saw them travelling on the street I took occasion to count a few of them, and found that there were at least twenty to the square foot on an average. That would give sixteen hundred and two millions to the square mile. Now, allowing that they were placed, one behind the other in a row, and each to occupy one inch of space (and allowing that at present they cover say twenty miles in width north and south, and one hundred miles east and west), there would be twelve hundred and sixty-seven thousand three hundred and sixty millions of hoppers in the Province ; placed as aforesaid, they would encircle the earth seven hundred and ninety-one times, and have one hundred and -eighty-two millions to spare ; or, in other words, they would form a band around the earth sixty-six feet wide.

The insects which are found on this continent are of three kinds : first is the Caloptenus Spretus, distinguished by its length of wings, which extend, when closed, one-third of their length beyond the tip of the abdomen ; second, the Caloptenus femor rubrum, or common red-legged grasshopper, with shorter wings ; third, the Pacific migratory locust, Oedipoda atrox, more than an inch in length, with several roundish brown spots on back and wings, and a dark fuscous spot behind the eye, which is seldom seen on this side of the Pacific slope. Their habits and the treatment required by each are the same. The first mentioned species, the Spretus, or Hateful, locust, is that which invades and devastates the prairies. Their natural breeding ground is in the arid plains of Colerado, Utah, Idaho and Montana, to the south and west of the Mississippi. They are generally, therefore, called Rocky Mountain locusts. From its more northern position, Manitoba is much less liable to their visitation than regions farther South, in the United States’ territories and the swarms which, invade this Province are not so dense or destructive. Much attention and learning has of late years been bestowed on this subject in Minnesota and elsewhere in that part of our neighbours’ territory most subject to the pest. We are indebted to the labours of Professor C. V. Riley, (State entomologist of Missouri) and to a report lately published by the authorities of Minnesota, for our illustrations and some of the remarks explaining them.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN LOCUST :—a, a, a, female in different positions, ovipositing ; b, egg pod extracted from ground with the end broken open, showing how the eggs are arranged ; c, a few eggs lying loose on the ground ; d, e, shows the earth partially removed to illustrate an egg-mass already in place, and one being placed ; f, shows where such a mass has been cover up.

There are usually from thirty to one hundred eggs in this mass. From these eggs the young locust emerges kicking off a thin white skin which enshrouds it and the larva is at once a locust. As it grows its skin distends till it bursts, and the locust comes forth in a new garment. It is now called a pupa ; the knobs on its back gradually grow into wings, when it is a full-armed locust. The following picture shows these several stages in the development of the locust after it leaves the egg :

How voraciously the young locust feeds ; and what a destructive creature he is before, as well as after, his wings appear, we need not recount.

All records of the grass hopper plague prove that their visitations are periodical, that they do not come further east than the Lake of the Woods, and that, in many years, they will not he seen in Manitoba, or if at all, to no mischievous extent.

The Jesuit history of missions in California states, that the year 1722 was disastrous. They came again in 1746, continuing three years ; next in 1753, 1754 ; afterwards in 176 5, 1766 and 1767. During this century the periods of greatest destruction were 1828, 1838, 1846 and 1855. The locusts extended theselvesin one year over a surface corn – prised within thirty-eight degrees of latitude, and in the broadest part eighteen degrees of longitude.—See article on Grasshoppers and Locusts of America in Smithsonian Reports for 1858, page 200. Since the settlement of Minnesota, there have been six grasshopper years, 1856, 1857, 1865, 1873, 1874, and 1875. The history of Red River settlement presents a similar proportion of years of suffering and exemption. Since Lord Selkirk’s settlement in 1812, the locusts have appeared in 1818 and 1819; then not till 1857 and 1858 ; next in 1864 and 1865, doing little in-jury ; then in 1867, 1868, 1869 and 1870, and again in these last three years. In 1872, they came too late to do much damage to the wheat which was then ripening.

The last four years have been very unfortunate, there being but one full crop the average loss being fully one half the crop. Mr. Taylor, the united States Consul, who has given much attention to this subject, estimates that, with the extension of settlement in Manitoba, the average annual loss in locust years will be reduced to ten per cent., the rate observed in the States west of the Mississippi, still more exposed to the pest. Among the means to be used for their destruction, Mr. Taylor first enumerates natural remedies. It is a curious fact that the immunity of any particular district may turn upon the fact of a bright sun and clear sky, through which they move on, while the sun shines in the warm air, but settling down and taking refuge in the shrubs and grass as rain approaches—” Thy crowned are as the locusts, and thy captains as the great grasshoppers, which camp in the hedges in the cold day ; but when the sun arises they flee away, and their place is not known where they are.”

Nahum iii. 17. Among other descriptions of them in holy writ, the most wonderful is that in the second chap-ter of Joel, to which we refer our readers. Professor Hind met them near the Qu’Appelle river in July, 1858 : —” Here we observed during the morning the grass-hoppers descending from a great height, perpendicularly, like hail a sign, our half-breeds stated, of approaching rain.” They were, he adds, excellent prognosticators–a thunder storm soon came on. But, to revert to our immediate subject, the means of relief from the pest.

(1) A fly, resembling the house fly, deposits its larvae between the head and body, which penetrate and destroy the grasshopper. This fly is the Tachina or Sarcophaga. (2) The Ichneumon, Pimpla instigator, deposits its eggs in the egg-sack of the locust, and when the larva of the Ichneumon fly comes out it sucks the eggs of the locust, destroying them. (3) The red parasites, found near the base of the wings eat into the back, and destroy the insect. These were very frequently observed. Birds the blackbird, crow, domestic fowl, &c. make havoc of them. Beasts, too, are used to trample them, when they fall in the evening, in the European plains. In Hungary and elsewhere, horses, camels, cattle, &c., are driven over and trample them. It is suggested that the disappearance of the buffalo has tended to increase their number, as the eggs and young grasshoppers are most numerous on the paths which these animals would take. Next in order are enumerated mechanical means, which, if on a sufficiently large scale and persevered in, have been found, to some extent, successful. When the soil is ploughed early and deep the eggs are destroyed and the ravages are lessened. The crops should be planted early and may be harvested in time to anticipate the pest. Government may also aid a general effort, as has been for ages done in China, Greece, Italy, Hungary, France and Russia. In Minnesota this has been tried. The bounty system was partially and tardily applied, but with very successful results in Le Sueur, Blue Earth and other counties. Blue Earth county paid in 1875, $31,225 for 15,766 bushels ; Todd county, $333 for 130 bushels ; Meeker, $959 for 293 bushels ; Brown, $1,600 for 4,525 bushels ; Sibley, $8,784 for 439,225 pounds, and Nicollet county $25,000 for 25,000 bushels of the full-grown locusts. The total damage to crops by the locust invasion of 1875 is estimated at $2,000,000.

There is no crop which may be grown with assurance of immunity in a locust year. They prefer unripe cereals and juicy grasses, and, unless hard pressed, will pass peas and beans. These are a valuable and generally sure crop and may be planted as a fringe round the fields, and, especially if a ditch full of water can be added to this green wall, will so protect the other grain by diverting the young insect before it is winged, its most hungry and dangerous stage, from passing the barrier, the more rash and daring intruders floundering into the water and being drowned. If the Manitoba people had used such efforts last year unitedly, where settled close together as at Kildonan, they would have gained much in the result.

It must not be supposed that all the crops were destroyed. No better wheat and potatoes can anywhere be found than were in 1875 harvested at Portage la Prairie, and along the Red River between Fargo and Pembina, and in the neighbourhood of St. Joe, at the south-west corner of the Province. All this is spring-sown, in rich well-drained soil. Efforts in the infested regions, made by settlers and their families during the few hours in which the locust rested, such as building fires, surrounding the field or garden with a ditch into which the insects fall and drown, beating with bushes, &c., have been successful in saving large parts of the crops. The Consul and Mr. Spencer, Collector of Customs at Winnipeg, are among my authorities for this statement.

Since the harvest season we have had favourable ac-counts from many places where partial crops were saved. In the Boyne settlement in the centre of the Province, a large acreage was harvested, yielding 35 bushels to the acre. In the Pembina Mountain region also a fair crop was cut. Mr. J. M. Machar, one of the Government commissioners who, last summer, spent some months in the Province, gives the following as his experience :

” Between the Assiniboine and the southern shore of Lake Manitoba there lies a district of about ten miles square, chiefly settled and farmed by emigrants from Ontario. Last fall these farmers harvested, in spite of the grasshoppers, a two-thirds crop, which is better than an average crop in Ontario. Instead of, as in the parishes of Baie St. Paul, and Francois Xavier, sowing nothing, as did many of their neighbours, or lazily watching the grasshoppers devour what they had sown, as did most of the others, these brave men sowed in hope, and when the enemy appeared, turned out and fought him. I saw a forty-acre field of splendid wheat at Portage Creek, the property of a family of New Brunswickers named Green. They spread a swath of straw right across the middle of the field. Then, through the long June days, the whole family four stalwart young men and three young ladies, daughters of the farm, but as truly refined as any of the graduates of our city boarding schools armed themselves with boughs, and forming in line, drove the ` hoppers ‘ before them into the straw. It seems that the brutes have their own idea of comfort, and like to have a bed under them. At all events, they concluded to roost there. When evening came a match was applied, and in five minutes nothing was left of the invaders but their horny coverings, which at the time of my visit in August, still littered the ground in millions. Of course I am not prepared to say whether the ` hoppers ‘ were as numerous in that section as they were on the Red River, where, in June, I saw them sweep all before them ; but in view of these results, and of the successful campaign of last summer in several of the Western States, one cannot help thinking that whatever Government may do should be in the direction of encouraging and helping people to help themselves.”

We did not meet any who had tried the edible qualities of the grasshopper, but Dr. Riley declares in favour of such diet, and describes the most epicurean methods of preparing it. The insects yield, he says, an agreeable nutty flavour when, the legs and wings being removed, they are fried in butter. Palatable soup may also be made from them. The Indians catch, roast and eat them, and in the East, the Arabs esteem them a delicacy.

Dr. Riley does not regard John the Baptist as so badly off in the way of dainties, as we are accustomed to consider that prophet of the wilderness, whose food was locusts and wild honey.

That the farmers of Minnesota and Dakota were wise, in sowing as usual in the spring of 1875, we had ample proofs as we passed from Winnipeg along their broad fields ripening with a rich harvest. The vessel in which we sailed from Duluth carried in her hold 5,000 barrels of Minnesota wheat flour, and had to leave as many more for the next boat to carry. Mr. Nimmons, who settled in 1869 about six miles north-west of Winnipeg, furnishes a worthy example, which some older settlers would have done well to follow. He has a fine farm of 320 acres, or half a section, and last autumn found a ready market in Winnipeg for some hundreds of bushels of potatoes. Starting without capital he struggled on through difficulties, and then had nearly 100 acres broken, and 50 acres under heavy crops of barley, wheat, oats, peas, turnips and potatoes, for all of which he obtained good prices. A sample of his last year’s wheat of 66 pounds to the bushel has gone to the Centennial. When asked how he had escaped the grass-hoppers, he answered that he had fought them in every stage of their growth, commencing the previous fall by ploughing and reploughing their eggs under the ground, thereby preventing them hatching ; but, of course they came on to his fields last summer from the uncultivated prairie in myriads. These he battled against by fire, and by driving, so successfully as to save nearly his entire planting. Mr. Nimmons summed up the matter by stating it as his belief that the grasshoppers may be met and conquered by hard work and common sense means ; and that in closely-settled neighbourhoods, if each occupant does his share, a fair crop may always be counted upon. As this opinion tallies with the experience of Messrs. Tristan and Morgan, of Headingly, and that of many others, and indeed is but to repeat the history of the plague in other lands, we have no doubt it is correct.

It is generally hoped that but little of this plague will be felt for some years in Manitoba. The grounds for such confidence are the historical facts as to its periodicity stated, the great numbers of the parasites found on specimens examined, and the fact that the locusts flew off without depositing their eggs. In lands where nature has dealt with less lavish hand, the farmer might well hesitate to embark his means and labour in tillage, but the great returns which the marvellous rich, deep soil of this Province will yearly produce, will doubtless allow an ample margin for periodical losses from this plague, and these losses too may be anticipated, and to a great extent met and lessened, by united skilful effort, when the lands become settled, as no doubt they soon will be, with industrious farmers using all modern means of agriculture.

The Mennonites, coming from a land where this pest is not unknown to settle here, should convince us that it is not to be too much dreaded. No settlers can be found more shrewd and capable of selecting a good home and forming opinions as to agricultural matters, than they. They are quickly occupying the beautiful townships as-signed them on either side of Red River, between Winnipeg and Pembina.