by April Reinhardt
(last updated May 20, 2009)
In 1848, according to Utah's state history, crickets destroyed the crops of Mormon pioneers. That first Mormon settlement lost the majority of their wheat harvest when the crickets devoured the crops, destroying all vegetation, and other crickets, in their path. In an answer to their fervent prayers, the Mormons were saved from famine when seagulls arrived, eating the hordes of crickets over several days. The California gulls consumed the crickets, were seen to vomit the eaten insects, and return time and again to eat more until the cricket population was destroyed. Thus, the insect was dubbed the Mormon cricket.
Yet, the Mormon cricket really isn't a cricket, at all. It is a shield-backed katydid, found in western North America. Their habitat begins in southern Canada and ranges southward, with populations of Mormon crickets thriving in New Mexico, Nevada, California, and Arizona. A Mormon cricket is quite large, growing to 2 inches in length, with the females generally being larger than the males. Most Mormon crickets are brown, but there are black and green varieties. And while they are winged insects, they cannot fly. They travel mostly by crawling and hopping, and can migrate a half-a-mile each day, and cover 25 to 50 miles in one season. Mormon crickets are not nocturnal insects, traveling and eating mainly during the day.
When they swam, Mormon crickets voraciously consume anything within their path, including other Mormon crickets in front of them. In large swarms, the can utterly destroy and damage plants and cultivated crops in their path. Their main source of food is barley, wheat, clover, and alfalfa, but they have been known to devour entire vegetable gardens and any other natural plant within their swarming path.
Mormon crickets undergo seven stages of development from the time they hatch, until the time they die. During those stages, their lifecycle lasts about three months, or from 60 to 90 days. They hatch in the spring, reach maturity by late summer, and then mate, lay eggs, and then die. A female Mormon cricket can lay up to 80 eggs before she dies.
When smaller bands of Mormon crickets join other populations of crickets, they can reach densities of 100 per square yard. Something triggers within the insects to swarm and they all begin roaming in one direction, like a flock of birds, devouring and destroying everything within their path. In drought years, they can even remove the wood siding from houses. When they are squashed, the live Mormon crickets pause to feast on the squashed carcasses of their peers, causing roadways to become slick with their body parts and fluids. Outbreaks building to threatening numbers of Mormon crickets only occur every few years. The outbreak of Mormon crickets in 1938 destroyed 19 million acres in 11 different states.
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