Episode 162 – Desert Locust: Ruin on the Breeze

“…and today we’re talking about a deadly insect that’s carried on the winds of change. But more on that later.”

Many animals have amazing abilities that make them especially ferocious and formidable. But few are so terrible and mighty that they can be classified as a natural disaster. No we’re not talking about a giant nuclear lizard. We’re talking about an insect so ravenous in disposition and so immense in its numbers that it strikes fear into the hearts of those in its path. The desert locust is proof that the balance of nature can shift with the wind. A breeze can be a welcome respite from the blazing sun, but it may also carry disaster in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Measure Up

Welcome to the beloved Measure Up segment. The official listener’s favorite part of the show! The part of the show when we present the animal’s size and dimension in relatable terms through a quiz that’s fun for the whole family. It’s also the part of the show that’s introduced by you when you send in audio of yourself saying, singing, or chittering the words Measure Up into ldtaxonomy at gmail dot com. We do have a new intro from our friend Natalie. She has a cool podcast called Across the Ages in which she talks about a specific topic and its history!


  • 0.5 to 3 inches (7.6 cm)
  • How many desert locusts go into the tallest sand dunes in the world?
  • Hint: The largest sand dune is Duna Frederico Kirbus in Argentina.
  • Answer: 16,184 desert locust. The dune is 4,035 ft (1,230 m).


  • 2 grams (.07 ounces)
  • How many grains of rice would a locust have to eat to eat it’s weight in rice?
  • Hint: Rice is a major crop all over the world, including East Africa. 
  • 69 grains. A grain of rice is 0.029 grams.

Fast Facts About the Desert Locust

  • Range: They live in deserts across Africa, Arabia, and into West and Southern Asia (the stans).
  • Diet: They eat anything green. Everything from grass to trees to crops to shrek, to ireland – nothing is sacred, nothing is safe.
  • Behavior: 
    • They have three major stages in their life cycle – egg, nymph (hopper), and adult.
    • Once they hatch, a hopper can take anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 months to mature into a flying adult. It all depends on the weather and availability of food.
    • Males tend to mature earlier and then start giving off a chemical smell that gets the females to mature

Major Fact: A Plague of Locusts

Desert locust swarming behavior has been observed for thousands of years. In the Bible, it’s associated with God’s wrath and in the book of Joel, a locust swarm is compared to an invading army in the totality of its destructive power. 

“At the sight of them, nations are in anguish; every face turns pale. They charge like warriors; They scale walls like soldiers. They all march in line, not swerving from their course.” –Joel 2:6-7

Desert locusts are a species of grasshopper. Most of the time, they act like any grasshopper would. They hop around, eat leaves, and look for a mate. For the most part, they don’t spend too much time together, only coming together to procreate. This is called their solitary phase. But something strange happens when the weather changes. 

During a period of drought, vegetation is choked out and food becomes scarce. When that drought is interrupted by excessive rains, something changes in the locust. The sudden increase in water creates a breeding boom. New greenery becomes the object of intense competition among grasshoppers. They enter their gregarious phase. The change they go through isn’t just behavioral, they even look different. 

A Change is Triggered

Solitary hoppers are green or brown, depending on their surroundings. The winged adults tend to fly at night to avoid predation. When they enter the gregarious phase. Instead of blending in with their surroundings, they change to a bold black and yellow coloration. This may be an adaptation from camouflage to pattern disruption as they clump together in groups. The change also makes them ravenous. The millions of new grasshoppers all want to eat their fill, so each individual wants to eat as much as they can sink their mouth parts into. 

With new bold colors, they adapt new bold attitudes. The adults take to the skies in broad daylight in swarms that can blot out the sun. Swarms travel with the wind at the same speed as the wind. So instead of flying off in different directions to spread out their destruction, they’re concentrated onto the farms and fields downwind. Nymphs, which look like adults but have no wings, can march in huge swarms about 7 kilometers each day. As adults, they can travel 150 kilometers in a day and a swarm can have 150 million locust per square kilometer. In a single kilometer, there are enough desert locusts to circumnavigate the moon. Each square kilometer can eat the same amount of food as 35,000 people. A swarm can be as large as 460 square miles (1191.39 square kilometers).

The Current Crisis

There’s currently a locust crisis happening in East Africa that’s devastating crops in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen, and Sudan. The origins are thought to be an abnormal amount of tropical cyclones that dumped rain onto the Rub’ Al Khali Desert, starting in 2018. Sand dunes separated thousands of lakes for the first time in 20 years. The cyclones created extreme flooding all over the Arabian peninsula and East Africa. The unusual desert weather triggered a desert locust population boom and a gregarious phase. 

In 2020, massive swarms threaten food production in regions that were already struggling with food shortage. COVID-19 has hampered attempts to get ahead of the hoppers, making 2020 seem like actual biblical plagues in the places that experienced storms, floods, locust, and the pandemic. Food shortage destabilizes the area, leading to unrest and violence. 

Researchers have found ways to curb the locust swarms by tapping into their own chemical communications. They may have identified a single chemical that turns solitary locusts into gregarious ones and attracts them together. That may allow them to set traps baited with this chemical. There may also be a way to chemically confuse the locust in their nymph stage, in order to break up swarms. But it needs to be done before they take flight and the best way to do that is to find egg clusters, which are laid in soft soil. 

Currently, a second generation has hatched and they’re forming small immature swarms in Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia. Small swarms of adults are forming in Sudan. Hopper bands have been seen in Saudi Arabia and along the Red Sea. 

Ending: So get together, change your colors, and feast your heart out like the desert locust here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.