Insect hordes like a Hitchcock movie

It's like biblical plagues, the mini-series. The whole world seems to be in a knock-down, drag-out confrontation with hordes of insects.

Here in the Mid-South, roads in some areas have been “paved” with caterpillars, resulting in pavement slick with the slime from their being crushed under wheels. Elsewhere, grasshoppers have been munching their way through anything green. Other areas have horror stories of armyworms.

It goes without saying that our favorite Delta insect, the mosquito, is thriving. Even in bright sunlight, the bloodthirsty critters attack. Termites have been unusually active and long lines of ants snake through kitchens, bathrooms, and other living areas.

(For the most part, though — knock on wood and thanks to the success of the eradication program — boll weevil trap counts have been extremely low across much of the Delta.)

In some Western states, gnats have been so bad they completely covered windows in buildings and infiltrated homes and offices, buzzing about and sticking to people, computer monitors, cups of coffee, morning donuts, you name it.

In Utah and surrounding areas, millions upon millions of grasshoppers and crickets have joined forces, eating through fields, covering houses, shopping malls, and autos, and clogging swimming pools. The sound of crunching is heard in the land, as the critters are crushed whenever people walk, ride bicycles, or drive their vehicles. The threat to crops was so grave that the governor declared an emergency in many counties, permitting farmers to get aid for fighting the pests and as compensation for their losses.

Central Indiana has been fighting an infestation of armyworm moths, the likes of which no one has seen for 30 years or more. “Like a Hitchcock movie” was the frequent description.

On the other side of the world, China is enduring a plague of locusts, described as the worst in four decades. The insects are so bad that one province has set loose an army of ducks trained to eat locusts. One cannot help but wonder how you'd go about training ducks to chow down on locusts, but officials say one of the quackers can scarf down up to a pound of locusts and/or locusts eggs per day, making them healthy and fat and commanding a higher price when they're marketed. Yum, yum.

As if Russia doesn't have enough problems with raging inflation, soaring crime, crumbling nuclear plants, and spying on the United States, a number of the former Soviet republics are also battling marauding locusts, with nearly $20 million already committed to battling the pests, including chemical treatments. The locusts have been busily devouring rice, pastures, and other crops.

What's behind these epic insect outbreaks? Are the forces of nature running amok?

Nah, say the experts: It's only weather. High temperatures, high amounts of rainfall early in the season — conditions favorable to earlier breeding by the pesky critters, and a longer breeding season. Then, as things turned off dry and wild host plants withered, the armies of insects began moving in search of greener pickin's.

Insects aren't the only weird phenomenon this spring. Particles of that dust coating the windshield of your pickup or car and infusing the air you breathe may have come from the other side of the world: China's Gobi Desert. What environmental scientists describe as “a dust storm of massive proportions” back in early April was so strong that dust from the desert was sucked into the jet stream of the upper atmosphere and whipped across the Pacific Ocean to the United States.

In Colorado, the resultant haze was so heavy that it obscured normally clear mountain vistas, and resulted in spectacular sunsets across much of the West and Southwest. NASA scientists say it's not the first time this sort of dispersion has been documented; three years ago pollution from Chinese factories traveled all the way to the United States.

But the latest incident, they say, helps to further document just how small our world really is in terms of environmental and climatological relationships.

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