A scourge of grasshoppers is chomping through gardens, orchards, pastures and urban landscapes across a wide swath of Texas this summer.
A horde of hoppers denuded 180 acres of Bermuda and native grasses on pastureland in Gainesville, where Bobby Sicking runs 100 cows, forcing him to move the stock and start feeding them hay.
He spent more than $3,000 spraying the pastures, then the insects moved into the trees.
"You wouldn't believe it. They stripped every leaf off a native mulberry tree. I have a peach tree I sprayed twice and they ate the fruit down to the stones," he said. "There are two nearby corn patches and there are rows and rows with no leaves on them, and now they are burrowing into the ears."
The severe grasshopper outbreak is yet another destructive impact of last year's Texas drought. Consecutive years of hot, dry summers, warm autumns and dry springs favor grasshopper survival and reproduction, experts say.
And when food supplies are diminished in their natural habitat of ranges and pastures, the long-distance flyers migrate to greener fields and well-watered landscapes.
Entomologist Chris Sansome of the Texas A&M University Research and Extension Center in San Angelo said this year's infestation is one of the three worst he has seen in 31 years on the job.
“If you have 30 grasshoppers per square yard, that’s the equivalent of a cow, and lots of places are easily running those numbers,” he said. “The biggest problem is that there are massive numbers and they just keep coming.”
The hoppers are causing problems from the Coastal Bend region through North, Central and East Texas and into the Rolling Plains, according to crop reports compiled by the Texas AgriLife Extension Service.
The insects started showing up in Tarrant County in the past couple of weeks, said extension agent Laura Miller.
“They’re coming into town now in the rural/urban interface area. They can jump, they can fly and they can get to food,” she said. Extension agent Todd Vineyard said the bugs are as “bad as they can get” in Wise County.
“They are destroying landscapes and pastures. We’ve had people who walk outside their house and their yards are gone in a day. People have come home from vacation and all their plants were gone. We’ve got that kind of infestation,” he said.
Poolville farmer Ben Walker says the grasshoppers will “get on everything. They’ll eat black-eyed peas, tomatoes and peaches. They’ll strip sweet potatoes down to the ground. They’re not prejudiced; they’ll tear into everything.”
He just started encountering the insects a week ago, and he planned to beat them back by spraying insecticide around the perimeter of his gardens.
The grasshoppers are showing up in pockets across the Dallas-Fort Worth region, particularly around the fringes of developed areas, said entomologist Don Shultz of HomeTeam Pest Defense.
“They’ve kind of exploded. When you walk across a yard and see hundreds, that’s a lot of grasshoppers,” he said.
“They are migrating from the fields into home areas and feeding on anything green.”
In Erath County, the grasshoppers are eating their way through hay fields, said extension agent Whit Weems.
“They’ve been pretty heavy because of the dry weather. It’s pretty rough in the hay fields,” he said, noting that pecan growers are battling to keep the bugs from wiping out their young trees.
“I’ve gotten lots of calls about home landscapes, vegetable gardens and shrubs. They can defoliate young trees and shrubs really quick,” he said. In Cooke County, the outbreak has been unusually severe, said extension agent Wayne Becker.
“I’ve had quite a few ranchers and farmers say it’s the worst they’ve seen it,” he said. “They are hurting the pastures, and we’re seeing them in sorghum and corn fields.
“It’s not 100 percent coverage, but it’s like an epidemic. Anyone that lives in the country that tries to have a landscape is having a problem,” Becker said.
And since grasshopper eggs hatch at different times, the challenge could last for months, Weems said.
So what can people do?
“They can hope September gets here in a hurry,” laughed Vineyard. “They can protect those areas they hold dear. But the facts are, you can spray today and they’ll be back in five days when the ones from your neighbors get on you.”
Sicking, the Gainesville stockman, says his grasshopper plague seems to be growing to biblical proportions.
“It started in February, and there have been progressively more hatches. They just keep multiplying.”