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Grasshopper invasion in Valley

by Linda Hiller

The hoppers are coming, the hoppers are coming. Wait, they’re already here.

Culminating in what amounted to a perfect grasshopper population build-up the last several years, many residents of Northern Nevada have begun to notice more than the usual number of the long-legged, chewing insects in their gardens, on their grass and even plastered on the sides of their homes this year.

Walking in the tall grass as young grasshoppers jumped up in clouds around her, Fish Springs home owner Linda Monohan was amazed.

“In 18 years, this is definitely the first time we’ve seen this many grasshoppers out here,” she said. “We started to notice them around the first of June, and it’s been growing and moving ever since. Someone said there is a swath about a mile wide.”

– It was forecast. The spring population explosion was actually predicted from surveys taken last fall, according to Nevada Division of Agriculture Entomologist Jeff Knight.

“For the last several years, the numbers have slowly been building up, and this last winter was ideal for them – mild with plenty of moisture and not seriously cold,” he said. “Then, the real key was that this spring’s conditions were conducive to their hatching – the thing that hurts them the most is an extended period of cold, damp spring weather, but we didn’t get enough of that. If we’d had a week of real cold and wet weather, we might have had fewer numbers now.”

Knight said grasshopper numbers of more than eight per square yard is considered economically damaging, and treatment can then be considered. Surveys taken in the Fish Springs area Monday found 12-15 young grasshoppers per square yard in the cheat grass area on public land, and 50-100 hoppers per square yard on private property, where green grass, plants and trees get artificial watering.

“They definitely like the green,” said Steve Lewis, University of Nevada, Reno Cooperative Extension educator.

Monohan wonders why – if the numbers were predicted – didn’t someone do something before they hatched and began to swarm?

“What really bugs me is that this was predicted,” she said as small green grasshoppers clung to her skirt in the middle of a field not far from her home. “Why didn’t they do something then?”

Lewis said the mechanism just isn’t in place to deal with a large insect infestation.

“This is first time I can remember that the population explosion was predicted and actually came true, but there’s no mechanism to treat the problem,” he said. “What surprises me is that money is always available to fight fire or flood, but with an insect infestation, we can’t find the money. And it’s hard to put a dollar value on the damage that occurs as a result of an insect infestation – it’s more difficult to estimate than damage from a flood or fire. But here we have this vast agricultural community, and that’s an important factor.”

– Don’t pray for rain. Knight said 90 percent of the grasshoppers at the Fish Springs site are a largely migratory species, melanoplus sanguinipes.

The upswing in their population cycle could continue if rain causes the native vegetation to further green up. If no rain falls and the vegetation browns, the grasshoppers will lay eggs and die, he said.

Depending on the weather in the next nine months, current grasshopper populations could either triple or drop off, Knight said.

Another mild winter would bode well only if you were a grasshopper, he said.

Knight was in Las Vegas early this week to investigate the influx of fire ants in nursery shipments from California. He said the grasshopper problem in Northern Nevada is also attention-worthy, since unusually high grasshopper numbers have been reported in Round Mountain, Palomino Valley, Spanish Springs and parts of northwest Reno in addition to Fish Springs.

“This is definitely a bad grasshopper year, he said. “Some of these species will eat almost anything, and unless everyone cooperates to treat their property, these grasshoppers can be hard to control. The biggest problem with a homeowner and small rancher is that if there’s a large area of grasshoppers around them, they’ll need to get everyone to do something.”

Lewis said he’d heard stories from Valley residents of grasshoppers chewing the handle off a pitchfork or eating paint off a house. Some property owners have resorted to folk remedies including filling a shallow pan with molasses and water, which attracts the hoppers and drowns them, but Knight said this amounts to a tiny bandage for a potentially large problem.

– How to treat, who should pay? Knight said insecticides such as Sevin and Malathion could be used to treat the grasshoppers, but added that these treatments do not guarantee instant eradication. Birds and other insect-eaters in the treated area become vulnerable to the chemicals, so if you have an inordinate amount of wild birds, that is something to consider.

Knight said money to help property owners spray for the grasshoppers is not there, either on the state or federal level.

Valley ranchers and farmers haven’t started to show concern about the grasshoppers coming over the Pine Nuts in droves yet, Lewis said.

“(Douglas County Manager) Dan Holler called about grasshoppers, wondering about them coming into the Valley,” Lewis said. “So far, we haven’t had any reports from the ag community, though.”

Knight said anyone with garden plants could cover their plants with insect netting, or spray at least a buffer strip around the perimeter of their property, using the chemical Sevin. Re-applying the poison once a week is also recommended.

“They’ve talked about trying to get the mosquito abatement people to do something, but that could be a long shot,” Lewis said.

Knight said state government doesn’t get involved in paying for insect infestation abatement, and although the federal government is more likely to, it’s a difficult proposition.

“There’s just no money for it,” he said. “The best thing people could do is to call their senators and congressman, and ask for the federal government to get involved – especially people who live adjacent to federal land. It’s not their fault they have grasshoppers.”