RENO — A creepy, cannibalistic bug that infested much of Nevada nine years ago might be making another drought-related assault on the state.
Experts are finding Mormon crickets marching through the desert east of Empire about 100 miles north of Reno. And while they’re not causing any problems yet, officials are paying attention.
“It is more than we’ve found for the last several years. We’ll have to see what happens,” Nevada state entomologist Jeff Knight told the Reno Gazette-Journal.
Drought conditions helped drive a major Mormon cricket infestation that lasted from about 2000 to 2008, peaking in 2005 when the crickets covered about 12 million acres across the Silver State.
The insects made infamous by nearly destroying the crops of Utah’s Mormon settlers more than 150 years ago caused widespread problems in outlying areas of Reno, in Austin and Winnemucca.
In 2003, Elko County commissioners declared a state of emergency after the crickets invaded parts of Elko, crawling over the walls of a hospital and making roads unsafe with a slippery coating of crushed insects.
“It was probably the worst recorded infestation,” Knight said of an event that apparently surpassed others occurring in Nevada in the 1930s and 1940s.
Growing up to 2 inches long as adults, Mormon crickets swarm in groups thousands strong, gobbling lawns, gardens and crops. When starved for protein and salt, they don’t hesitate to eat each other.
The well-armored insects got their name from early Mormon settlers who faced an infestation in 1848.
Described as a cross between a spider and a buffalo, the voracious critters devoured nearly all the wheat and corn that had been planted before the settlers were saved by what members of The Church of Christ of Latter-day Saints call “the miracle of the gulls.” According to the lore, flocks of seabirds suddenly appeared to eat thousands of the crickets and allow the settlers to recover their crops.
Droughts contribute to infestations because mild winters allow more eggs laid the previous summer to survive and hatch the next spring. Some researchers suggest eggs might lay dormant in the ground for a number of years only to hatch when drought conditions exist, Knight said.
“It does seem to be drought years that start the higher populations,” Knight said earlier this week.
It remains to be seen whether the current drought, now three years in duration, may be setting the stage for another significant infestation. The crickets found near Empire are only numbering about one every five to 10 square yards, significantly below levels where actions such as dispersing poison bait would be considered.
“They’re out in the middle of nowhere,” Knight said of this summer’s situation. “They’re not impacting anything or anybody.”