Swarming Disaster


For the third year in a row, skies over Madagascar are black with millions of locusts—the insects of biblical fame that gobble up crops and ravage landscapes, mostly in countries where people barely get by. (NPR)

Use our resources to better understand the “Lessons of a Cannibal Plague.”

Thanks to Alli for the heads-up on this great current-event connection!

This video, which describes Madagascar’s locust invasion of 2013, is entirely relevant.

Discussion Questions

  • Iain Couzin, the Nat Geo Emerging Explorer consulted in the NPR article, says locusts are “solitary creatures.” They sure don’t look like it in the Telegraph video above. If they are so solitary why do billions of them swarm?
    • Lack of resources. According to Couzin, locusts go wherever food is available. This means that when there are a few locusts and food is dispersed over a wide area, they can be as solitary as they like. However, things get crowded when there are a lot of locusts and food is concentrated in small areas. “So, say, during a drought,” Couzin explains, “they all aggregate together to feed. And that closeness changes their behavior. As they begin bumping into each other, they actually begin to cannibalize each other. Individuals are both trying to eat each other and avoid being eaten.”
NGS Picture ID:22933
These locusts, swarming over lush vegetation in Ethiopia, are similar to the swarms devastating the island nation of Madagascar. Photograph by Gianni Tortoli, National Geographic
  • During a locust invasion, Couzin says, subsistence farmers are the hardest hit. Why?
    • Locusts destroy their food crop, which may force families to endure hunger or spend more money on food, leaving less money for such things as shelter, electricity, health care, or school.
    • Locusts destroy their feed crops, which may put the farmer’s primary source of income—his or her livestock—in danger. Buying feed for the animal is expensive, and if the animal dies, the farmer has a smaller income.


  • The locusts swarms studied by the FAO primarily impact the developing world, in countries such as Madagascar. (See what the FAO has to say about the Madagascar locust crisis here.) Why do you think the developed world does not have locust swarms?
    • They do! In Australia, locust swarms can destroy livestock pastures, grains, vegetables, and orchards. Swarms of locusts are also not uncommon in the fertile agricultural regions of Italy and Spain. (American farmers are not put at risk, as the hated Rocky Mountain locust, which devastated U.S. crops in the 1800s, went extinct by the early 1900s.)
    • The poverty of the developing world exacerbates the devastation caused by locust swarms.
      • In the Telegraph video, an official at the Malagasy anti-locust center explains that “The big problem here is we don’t have money. We can’t buy pesticides, and we can’t buy enough fuel [to deliver pesticides to affected areas]. Field officers [at the anti-locust center] and managers can’t do their work. If we’re not working, farmers suffer and locusts multiply.”
      • In the NPR article, Iain Couzin lists other issues that disproportionately impact the developing world’s inability to confront its plagues of locusts: civil war, famine, and political unrest. “In parts of Africa in particular, the political situation is very dynamic. Even relatively stable countries, like Morocco and Mauritania, struggle because they don’t see eye to eye and don’t help each other as much as they could.”
  • David George Gordon, the “Bug Chef,” shared a recipe for Othopteran orzo with us. According to our media spotlight, Orthopterans include not only crickets—which the recipe calls for—but grasshoppers and locusts as well. Why do you think aspiring bug chefs should NOT substitute locusts for crickets in the recipe?
    • Toxicity! According to Iain Couzin, “Locusts sequester toxins from wild plants they eat in the environment. It’s part of their evolutionary strategy for dealing with predators, to make themselves toxic. Even when just handling them, my hands swell up and crack from that exposure. A colleague of mine tried eating one, and his lymph nodes swelled up like golf balls in his neck.” Stick to crickets.
David George Gordon, the Bug Chef, calls this dish "Sheesh!Kabobs." The insects used, which include locusts or katydids, are marinated overnight in a tomato-based sauce before being grilled. Don't use red locusts!! Photograph by Scott Stenjem, courtesy David George Gordon
David George Gordon, the Bug Chef, calls this dish “Sheesh!Kabobs.” The insects used, which include locusts or katydids, are marinated overnight in a tomato-based sauce before being grilled. Don’t use red locusts! Photograph by Scott Stenjem, courtesy David George Gordon

4 thoughts on “Swarming Disaster

  1. if we can’t destroy them,then eat them,,cooked locust is a delicacy here in the philipines.

  2. Pingback: What’s up in Madagascar today 2014-09-08 | Shohk.com

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