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Locusts, the Bible and Dictators

by Rebecca Nesbit

In the book of Exodus God sends a plague of locusts to devour Egypt’s plants and trees because Pharaoh was holding the Israelites captive. You’d be forgiven, of course, for thinking that it was weather patterns, not God or Pharaoh, that caused a huge swarm to darken the skies and consume all that remained of Egypt’s crops.

But the situation that is currently unfolding in the Middle East shows that the governments and leaders could determine whether locust swarms decimate harvests, not just weather and biology.

Why do locusts swarm?

Along Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast, 90,000 hectares have been sprayed with insecticide this year in order to control a locust infestation. The danger is, however, that the locusts will spread on wind currents to Yemen, where political instability means the government may be poorly equipped to deal with the outbreak. Security concerns have been keeping Yemen’s locust program out of the areas threatened with infestation.

Most of the time locusts are solitary, but when rain increases the amount of plant growth, and hence food, breeding gets out of hand. Overcrowding causes locusts to form swarms, migrate with the wind, and devour everything green.

On a scientific note this is really interesting – a switch to a migratory mode caused by a need to spread out to prevent overcrowding. But for farmers it is devastating: in the 2004 outbreak parts of Mali and Mauritania lost 90% of their cereal crops.

Thankfully, the breeding grounds in Yemen haven’t had the amount of rain needed to boost the locust population enough to prompt swarming. The dry season is approaching so, if we can get through the next few weeks without rain, it seems likely that the fate of Yemen’s crops will be determined by weather patterns and not by people, politics or divine intervention.

Read more in Nature.

Just a note about the title of the post – locusts are a species of grasshopper; ‘the Bible and the Torah’, although fairer, seemed a little bit clumsy; Pharaoh was a dictator, and earlier this year  protesters demanded that Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, end his 30yr rule because of a perceived lack of democratic reform.

3 comments to Locusts, the Bible and Dictators

  • Judy

    I love the connections in this!

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