MEEKER — Thousands of the destructive insects hatch all at once, then crawl across the landscape as a reddish-brown wave in search of something to eat.
Mormon crickets, which are actually not crickets but grasshopper-like katydids, are invading parts of western Colorado this summer in what looks like the largest hatch in years.
They’re crunching and popping under tires on Colorado 64, leaving reddish streaks on the pavement. They’re crawling on houses, where they poop on the siding and people have to spray them off with power washers. And they are devouring hay crops if they can reach them before they’re stopped by poisonous bait that pest control workers are lining across the ground around Meeker, Maybell, Dinosaur and Craig.
“They are stretched out on 64, for miles, just waves of them,” said Linda Masters, who directs the Colorado State University Extension office in Meeker. “I’ve never seen that. They are really thick this year.”
A group of Western Slope residents has planned a meeting in the hopes of persuading government agencies to aerial spray federal land in an effort to stop the bugs, as has been done in prior outbreak years.
The crickets got their name back in the mid-1800s when they ravaged the crops of Mormon settlers in Utah. In a story referred to as the “miracle of the gulls,” the settlers claimed that seagulls flew in and ate the insects, sparing their crops in one of their first harvests after moving to Utah to escape religious persecution.
Mormon crickets mate and lay their eggs in late summer or fall, then they die. The eggs stay dormant over the winter, then hatch the following spring or summer, after the soil temperature rises above 40 degrees. Across the West, the hatch was delayed this year, likely because of a cooler, wetter season.
The insects can travel 25 to 50 miles in one season, and might stop for three or four days in a spot with food.
In Colorado, the crickets have hit hard only in a pocket of the Western Slope, where residents have photographed waves of them crossing roads and crawling into farmland. The crickets prefer sagebrush country, where they munch on forbes and grasses — and if they can get to them, farmers’ crops.
The worst reports of infestation this year have come from Nevada, where masses of the bugs have been squashed by cars and have turned roads slick and smelly. Residents there say they’ve slid off roads because of cricket carnage and the Nevada Department of Transportation warned on Twitter that motorists should “TAKE IT SLOW.”
It’s not quite that bad in Colorado, but it’s bad enough that Rio Blanco County is providing granular bait free to residents. The insecticide is sprinkled across the ground ahead of a band of crickets. The frontline of crickets will eat the bait and die, and then the next waves of cannibalistic crickets will eat the dead crickets and die, too.
“They will just start piling up there,” Masters said.
The tricky part, especially for farmers and ranchers who live miles apart outside Meeker and Rangely, is knowing when they’re coming. “Neighbors are not exactly like 50 feet away,” she said.
“They will continually move forward in swarms looking for fresh leafy forbs and crops. In our area, that means alfalfa.”
The insects don’t fly, but crawl and hop like grasshoppers. They are a “bizarre type of katydid that is flightless and occasionally occurs in large numbers in dry rangeland areas of the Western U.S.,” said Whitney Cranshaw, a retired Colorado State University entomology professor.
Outbreaks are more common in Nevada, southern Idaho and Utah, and when they do happen in Colorado, they are typically “spotty in distribution” and in the extreme northwestern part of the state, near Dinosaur National Monument near the border of Utah, he said.
Masters called this season’s hatch “exceptional” in Rio Blanco County, where the bugs stretch for miles along Colorado 64, and into Moffat County along U.S. 40.
She suggested residents shield their gardens with 6-foot-high chicken wire wrapped with plastic sheeting. Farmers can protect their hay by cutting it, since the bugs prefer to eat it before it’s been cut.
Mormon crickets don’t eat crops “to the ground,” but they can do enough damage to cause economic hardship — if the hay is baled with bugs in it, they likely won’t be able to sell it.
While some have compared the swarms in Nevada to a Biblical plague, it’s worth pointing out that Mormon crickets are not nearly as calamitous as locusts.
“Locusts will take everything to the ground,” Masters said. “It’s not that bad.”
Melissa Schreiner, a CSU Extension entomologist based in Grand Junction, said she’s been receiving reports of massive numbers of Mormon crickets near Rangely and Craig in the past week. “They are in piles and piles, just stacked on top of each other,” she said, describing a photo of the insects crawling down a railroad track.
Mormon cricket “events” are usually connected to drought years, so the abundance has entomologists wondering what’s going on when this winter’s snow was so deep that massive numbers of elk, pronghorn and deer starved to death. One theory about why there are so many? The insects have so much food to eat because of the abundance of spring rains that they are not cannibalizing, which is normally how the population stays in check.
“Typically, there is not a lot to eat and they eat each other,” Schreiner said.
She also points out that as the human population grows around Meeker, Rangely and Craig, people are building houses where there weren’t houses before — including on ground where grasshoppers or crickets have laid eggs for decades.
“These communities are growing and more folks are starting to notice,” Schreiner said.
Steamboat rancher Jo Stanko, who raises cattle and grows grass hay, is on the lookout for Mormon crickets after seeing Facebook posts of the pests to the north in Wyoming and to the east toward Craig.
Mormon crickets rarely make it to Steamboat, but tales abound about the lengths local farmers and ranchers went to in order to get rid of them in prior decades. One rancher allegedly brought in a train car full of turkeys to eat the crickets, Stanko said. Others dug holes, covered them with tin roofing doused in oil, and let the crickets slide in. Then they lit the holes on fire.
Stanko is already dealing with a grasshopper infestation this year, so the crickets would be most unwelcome.
“We’ve had too much dry. Too much snow,” she said. “Too much grasshoppers. We don’t need one more thing!”