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Six-Legged Teachers: Lessons from Locusts and Beetles

Editor’s note: Jeffrey A. Lockwood is an entomologist on the faculty of the Department of Philosophy and the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Wyoming. His research and teaching focus on exploring the relationships between nature and humanity through the interplay of science with the arts, humanities, and social sciences. His books include Locust: The devastating rise and mysterious disappearance of the insect that shaped the American frontier, published in 2004, and Six-Legged Soldiers: Using insects as weapons of war, published in 2008.


Come forth in the light of things,

Let Nature be your teacher —William Wordsworth, The Tables Turned

If Wordsworth’s admonition is on the mark, then just what sort of teacher is Nature?  In my experience Nature is not like Mrs. O’Malley, my kids’ kindergarten teacher who possessed saintly patience and gentleness.  Rather, Nature is more like the yardstick-wielding Sister Mary Leon of my Catholic school days.  At least this seems to be the case if Nature’s lessons include the largest insect outbreaks in the history of North America.  Locusts and beetles are harsh tutors.

The Perfect Swarm

1877 map of Rocky Mountain Locust's presumed "home territory" and "country subject to invasion. (Click map to enlarge.)

The greatest outpourings of animal life on this continent were recorded in the 1800s, although glacial deposits have revealed a pattern of entomological eruptions long preceding the arrival of Europeans.  In the 19th century, the Rocky Mountain locust decimated agriculture from the Canadian to the Mexican border, with swarms reaching from the Sierra Nevadas to the Mississippi River. This was the creature that terrified the young Laura Ingalls Wilder, that Congress called “the greatest impediment to settlement of the West,” that pushed thousands of settlers to the edge of starvation, and that coalesced into swarms which typically consumed 50 tons of vegetation a day.  In 1875, this species reached a biological crescendo in forming the largest locust swarm in history—an aggregation of 3.5 trillion insects that formed a 110-mile wide, 1800-mile-long aerial river of life that eclipsed the sun for five days as it passed overhead.

As difficult as it is to imagine the scale of this creature’s outbreaks, it is even harder to conceive that the Rocky Mountain locust vanished from the face of the Earth.  How could such an abundant creature go extinct in the ecological blink of an eye?  It turns out that in between drought-driven upsurges, the locusts retreated into mountains like a gang of Wild West outlaws.  The fertile, montane river valleys of the West were this insect’s sanctuary—and its Achilles heel.  During these recession periods, the locust was squeezed into a tight ecological bottleneck.  The entire species would have comfortably fit into a circle of land less than 20 miles in diameter.

When the outbreak of the 1870s collapsed, the locust withdrew to these mountain valleys.  And its timing could not have been worse.  These were precisely the lands that the pioneers were converting to agricultural production.  Farming the river valleys of the Rockies was enormously profitable thanks to the mining industries’ bourgeoning demands for food. Growing grain, not finding gold, was the key to wealth.  And so it was that the locust’s breeding grounds were inadvertently decimated.  Incredible as it seems, the most spectacular ‘success’ in the history of economic entomology—the only complete elimination of an agricultural pest—was the product of an unwitting bunch of frontier farmers, armed with cows and plows.  With wholesale habitat destruction of its former sanctuary, the last living specimen of the Rocky Mountain locust was captured in 1902.

The Beetles take America by Storm

If species have ghosts, then perhaps the spirit of the Rocky Mountain locust recently returned with a vengeance—in the form of the mountain pine beetle.  The skies aren’t darkening, but the forests are reddening.  According to the US Forest Service, “This ‘perfect storm,’ [has been] brewing for around 100 years.” So just as the mountains were becoming inhospitable to the locusts, these same habitats were beginning to set the stage for the beetle.  At present, more than 4 million acres of ponderosa and lodgepole pines have been killed in Wyoming and Colorado alone, with entire mountainsides seemingly dead (some of the smaller trees survive).  Limber, bristlecone, sugar and white pines are also on the insects’ menu.

Ecologists expect the beetles to keep going for at least another decade, working their way through as much as 50 million acres of North American timber.  The largest forest pest outbreak in the history of North America is underway with no end to the onslaught until the beetles run out of food.  At least at this point, there doesn’t seem to be any equivalent of 19th century cows and plows to bring a serendipitous end to this tsunami of insect life.

Let Nature be Your Teacher?

In the classroom of the western states, it’s as if Mrs. O’Malley got together with Sister Mary Leon and they noted that their students—the people of the western U.S.—had done poorly on last century’s lesson. Humans are a bit slow on the uptake. So the teachers decided that maybe we’d learn our environmental ABC’s if they presented the concepts in a different way. They figured it might help to combine Mrs. O’Malley’s compassionate belief that framing simple ideas in different ways facilitates learning, with Sister Mary Leon’s conviction that a whack on the knuckles helps to focus a student’s attention.  In our defense, we have reason for our confusion.  On the one hand, there are some important similarities between locusts and pine beetles.  Both are native species whose outbreaks are a normal part of their life histories. But on the other hand, there are also profound differences—the locust is gone and the beetle is flourishing. Humans have ended the locust outbreaks and fueled the beetle outbreaks.  So just what is Nature trying to teach us?  I’d like to suggest that we can derive two vital lessons from these staggering outpourings of insect life, which are separated by a century during which we failed to do our homework.

The Insect Tutorial: It’s About Diversity, You Dummies

Rocky Mountain Locust, 1902

The Rocky Mountain locust shows a perceptive student of nature that being an abundant, omnivorous and highly mobile species is no guarantee of survival.  This matters because humans share these features with the locusts.  The weakness of the locust was its becoming dependent on a single resource—the mountain valleys of the Rockies.  In effect, the insect failed to diversify a vital aspect of its life history.  Putting all of its eggs in one basket (or in one network of river valleys) meant that this species paid the price for ecological homogeneity.  Resilience depends on hedging your bets, on having alternatives, on diversifying your biological investments.

Likewise, the mountain pine beetle will eventually demonstrate the shortcomings of dependence on just a half-dozen species of trees—a lesson that might be relevant to humans, a species that feeds itself on a handful of crops.  (Wheat, corn, rice, millet and sorghum—all members of the grass family—provide 70 percent of the calories and 90 percent of the protein that we consume.)  But there’s another, perhaps more important, lesson we can learn from the beetles, a lesson about homogenization.  Through forest (mis)management we created vast, even-aged stands of trees.  This uniformity was the raw material for the beetle outbreak, but not much happened until we meddled with—and as it turns out, homogenized—the climate.

Ecologists tell us that the beetles are flourishing thanks to drought-stressed trees (weak hosts are easy pickings) and warmer winters (the immature stages of the beetle aren’t being subjected to lethally cold temperatures).  And these factors reflect a larger, more insidious homogenization.  It turns out that both among seasons and locations, temperatures are becoming more uniform.  That is, winters are warming faster than summers and temperate latitudes are warming faster than the tropics, so the planet is becoming more thermally uniform.  So as the spread of temperatures contracts, the range of the beetle expands.

We’ve entered (actually, created) the Era of Homogeneity.  The two greatest environmental crises of our age—mass extinction and global climate change—can be framed in terms of sameness.  As the biodiversity of the planet is decreasing, our accidental and intentional movement of species between habitats is increasing.  The result is that ecosystems are becoming undifferentiated.  Just try to find a place on earth without rats, dandelions, house sparrows, or Argentine ants (let alone grains, cows, pigs, and chickens).  At the same time, the planet is running out of cold seasons and places.  And it’s not just the biosphere and the atmosphere that are becoming monotonous.

As we impose ecological uniformity, humans are homogenizing cultures, foods, clothing, languages, politics, and ideas.  We seem to be headed toward a world in which we all watch the same (virtual) ‘reality’ shows over the internet in English, while drinking a Coke, wearing Nike gear, and voting off our least favorite people through a twisted version of American democracy—all the while trusting that environmental problems will be solved with the unilateral application of high technology. Henry David Thoreau grasped the lesson more than 150 years ago, but we utterly misunderstood his admonition to simplify.  We’ve managed to simplify that which should be complex (biodiversity, climate, and culture) and complicate that which ought to be simple (cereal brands, medical bills, and tax codes).

Diversity is the key to resilience, but of course even a richly varied humanity will ultimately reach its limits.  The Rocky Mountain locust ate almost anything, but a settled swarm eventually ran out of food—as will the pine beetles.  So I wonder what humanity will run out of?  Ecologists speculate about arable land and fresh water, but my money’s on health care and peace.  In any case, in the end there is, well, an end.  And this leads me to the other great lesson of locusts and beetles.

The Human Lesson: It’s About Moving Humbly, You Klutzes

What does our role in the extinction of the Rocky Mountain locust tell us about our place in the world?  Consider that without the marvel of the internal combustion engine or the magic of broad-spectrum pesticides, a ragtag bunch of farmers wiped out the most abundant animal in North America—accidentally.  These guys were just plowing up fertile mountain valleys to plant crops, damming streams to provide irrigation, and grazing cattle to produce meat.  You can’t get much lower tech without resorting to hunting and gathering. Nonetheless, they managed to alter the course of biological history.

One word comes to mind: lummox.  The word originated in the early 19th century as a British slang corruption of “dumb ox” (imagine saying this with a strong, East Anglian accent).  So humans are like a bull in a china shop, except that nature as a whole is not terribly fragile.  The Rocky Mountain locust disappeared, as did the passenger pigeon and for all intents and purposes the bison, American chestnuts, tallgrass prairie, and lots of other life forms.  But life keeps on keeping on.  To be honest, I don’t worry too much about Nature.  Parts, yes; the whole of it, no.  Even if humans put all of our resources into extinguishing life on Earth, I doubt we’d succeed.  Eliminating ourselves, however, is another matter.  Remember the homogenization tutorial?

Perhaps what’s most worrisome is how little change in the ecosystem was required to snuff out the locust.  We are an incredibly powerful, but not very bright, species—a bit like a god that is much closer to omnipotence than omniscience.  Sort of like Epimetheus, the Greek god whose name means “afterthought” or as Plato put it: “the being in whom thought follows production.”  As the story goes, this Titan and his brother Prometheus were assigned the task of distributing traits to the newly-made animals.  But due to Epimetheus’s lack of foresight, they’d run out of goodies when it came time for humans. So Prometheus ended stealing fire from the gods and giving it to us—a move that didn’t go well for anyone involved.  Epimetheus was also the one who accepted Pandora as a gift from the gods—and she, of course, opened the box that released the evils of humankind. Yup, that’s our boy.

Continuing the Promethean fire theme, power and arrogance are not unlike gasoline and matches.  A dangerous combination.  In the face of our demonstrable capacity to muck things up—even with the simplest of technologies—it seems we have two options. That is, when holding a match while standing in a pool of gasoline, the sane thing to do is to get rid of one or the otherif not both. And given that we’re not about to forego our ecological power, we’d be well advised to renounce our arrogance.  Those who might oppose our taking a humble approach to the world might point out that the Rocky Mountain locust was our nemesis.  We crushed our competitor, albeit unintentionally, so maybe it’s not such a bad thing to oafishly make our way in the world.  Right?

Counting on anthropogenic changes to work in our favor (assuming that we’re better off without locusts despite these insects having played important roles in prairie ecosystems including nutrient cycling) is a very risky venture.  It’s not unlike the police storming into a bank robbery and firing automatic weapons into the darkened lobby with the hope of hitting the criminals and missing the hostages.  The point is that we can almost effortlessly create ecological change, but many of the results aren’t going to be good for us (let alone other creatures).  The pine beetle outbreak has been clearly linked to the climate change (droughts and warm winters), which is largely a function of anthropogenic inputs of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is unambiguously a consequence of burning fossil fuels (torching forests and grasslands isn’t helping either).

It would’ve been asking a great deal of humans to figure out that powering our industry with coal, oil and natural gas was going to result in a bunch of beetles chomping their way through vast tracts of temperate forest.  (As an aside, there is a kind of poetic coherence in that burning—a form of rapid oxidation—the remains of long-dead plants is fueling an insect outbreak in which beetles are burning through living plants via biological metabolism—a slow version of oxidation.)  Who would’ve guessed?  So in the face of our near omnipotence, but our far cry from omniscience, the most rational response would be deep humility.  If a lummox isn’t going to get any smarter, at least it could move humbly through the world so as to damage as little as possible.

But humility is not a call for self-flagellation or cultural paralysis.  Humility does not entail humiliation—the sort of misanthropic ‘humans are a cancer on the Earth’ mortification that some environmentalists endorse.  We needn’t be paralyzed by meekness, it’s not the case that we don’t know anything, rather it’s a matter of realizing that we don’t know everything.  And so, I can tentatively offer my own guidelines about how we might make our way through the world.  First, move slowly.  Most changes are not made to avert imminent crisis, and speed is not always a virtue.  Second, move gently.  We are much less likely to break something if we step lightly.  Third, watch carefully.  It is easier to change directions if we catch a mistake early; gluing things back together is often impossible.

A Final Thought

The lessons of diversity and humility would seem to be particularly apropos to our relationship with the natural world.  But perhaps there’s much to be said for these qualities in our contemporary approaches to one another.  A dose of diversity and humility might be just what’s needed when we struggle with things like Islamic centers in New York City and gay marriage in American society.

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About the Author

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Jeffrey Lockwood is a renowned entomologist and accomplished writer/philosopher who first arrived at the University of Wyoming in the 1980s to conduct groundbreaking research on grasshoppers, insecticides and biological controls. In 2000, Lockwood turned his attention to the arts and became a professor of philosophy and creative writing. He is the author of Locust: the Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier (Basic Books 2004), Grasshopper Dreaming: Reflections on Killing and Loving (Skinner House 2002), Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War (Oxford University Press 2008), and many other works. In February 2012, Lockwood was featured on WNYC’s RadioLab for the podcast episode “Killer Empathy.”

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4 Responses to Six-Legged Teachers: Lessons from Locusts and Beetles

  1. Sally Watt November 7, 2010 at 8:06 am #

    Excellent! Thank you for such a wonderfully written and insightful article.

  2. Tom Bell November 2, 2010 at 7:36 pm #

    A very insightful and powerful piece. When a scientist starts telling us information like this, we should sit up and take notice.

  3. Marylou Morrison November 2, 2010 at 5:17 pm #

    ……and don’t waste precious energy on nonsensical power and speed…..An excellent and wise piece.

  4. Wally Macfarlane November 2, 2010 at 4:01 pm #

    Thanks for the provocative and enjoyable read. I think your advice to “move slowly and watch carefully” is dead on. I hope that forest managers can learn and apply this important concept in their management practices.


    Wally Macfarlane

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