Florida town is crawling with plague of ravenous grasshoppers

July 19, 1991|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Sun Staff Correspondent

DADE CITY, Fla. -- For grasshoppers, they sure do act like pigs.

Millions, many millions, of grasshoppers are feasting on Florida farmland as if it was their last supper.

"Every day, you see more and more of them," said citrus grower Gloyd Clarke. "It's beyond imagination. They just eat and eat and eat. They'll strip 4 to 5 acres in a day's time. They're about to eat us alive.

"We've got a state of emergency here," said the beleaguered Mr. Clarke. "This thing could get big."

In the past six weeks, the grasshoppers have turned 52,000 acres of prime agricultural land into grazing grounds. Picky eaters they are not, and they have made central Florida their dinner plate. On the menu: fruit and citrus trees, hay, palm trees, oak trees, rosebushes, blueberry bushes, azaleas, corn, black-eyed peas and, oddly, swimming pool screens.

"I've written to everybody from our state commissioner of agriculture to the president of the United States," said Pasco County Commissioner Sylvia Young. "It's like home on the range down here. We've got ourselves a disaster."

Moving like clouds across the sky, the flying grasshoppers seem to have found Dade City, a neighborly community of 6,000 about 45 miles northeast of Tampa, particularly tasty.

"Somebody tell these guys to go on a diet. Lose some weight. Take a load off," said state agricultural inspector Frank Urso. "I've lived in the woods all my life, and I've never seen anything like it."

State agricultural officials have set up a command center at the county fairgrounds here, but so far the hardy American grasshopper -- kin to the desert locust -- has survived all efforts to eradicate it.

It is particularly galling that the grounds next to "Grasshopper Command" are infested with the insects, thousands of them, despite at least six recent chemical sprayings.

State inspectors have all but given up on killing the adults, which only live a couple of months, as they brace themselves for a new batch of young grasshoppers later this month. (Eating isn't the only thing these grasshoppers have been doing.)

"I swear, right now you could bottle anything and sell it if you put 'Grasshopper Killer' on it," said Carol Van Buren, manager of Farmer's Feed & Supply. "This is all people are talking about. I've had people tell me they've stood and sprayed pesticides right on the grasshopper, and nothing. People come in and ask me for advice, and I just tell them to slam two bricks together."

Left unchecked, the new generation would double or quadruple the population, according to entomologists. With that in mind, officials plan to spray their breeding beds, then plow the soil to further disrupt the reproductive cycle.

Scientists believe that the population explosion was caused by drought and the past couple of unusually mild winters. Rains and cold temperatures serve as natural controls for the American grasshopper, or Schistocerca americana.

In some parts of the lush, green countryside here, even driving has become a hazard. Throngs of grasshoppers, some the size of small mice, rise up from the fields when a car drives by. Grasshoppers tap the windshield, thwack thwack, and stick to hood ornaments. Until rains washed them away a few days back, St. Joseph Road boasted quite an impressive road kill.

"Lord, they were splattered everywhere," said Graham Sassaman, a Dade City mechanic. "They hit so hard, some of them, they stick to your radiator, and they'll hit your windshield so hard they'll just about break it."

Growers haven't yet estimated the damage to their crops, but chemical spraying alone is costing them thousands of dollars.

"It's like a war," said citrus dealer Ronald E. Oakley. "It's like a war, and they're winning. You've heard about the plague in the Bible and the locusts out West -- well that's basically what we're looking at here, a plague.

"I hate these grasshoppers."

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