The best way for swarming insects to get the protein and salt they need is to eat each other. And that’s bad news for any locust that isn’t watching what its neighbors are up to.

Gruesome experiments on Mormon crickets in the deserts of Utah have shown that locusts are extremely vulnerable to attack from the side. Locusts that are side-on to an oncoming swarm are more likely to be eaten than those positioned with their heads or hind legs facing the swarm.

Consequently, when in a group, any locust that is out of line with its neighbors will expose its vulnerable flank and face a greater chance of being cannibalized. By being in line, they will be safer—but will also help hold the swarm together.

Breaking up a swarm

In order to break a locust swarm apart, then, should we be looking at reducing their cannibalistic tendencies by providing alternative food sources? Probably not. Providing sufficient food for so many voracious appetites, in a coordinated manner, would be a near-impossible task. It may even fuel the progress of the swarm.

Instead, our studies demonstrate how susceptible locust swarms are to randomness. If we can increase the randomness or “noise” a swarm experiences, then we might be able to break it apart. This idea might be harnessed as a swarm-management strategy, using low-flying planes to create atmospheric disturbance to disrupt locusts.

The huge size of swarms, however, make this method impractical, too. A typical locust swarm can cover several hundred square kilometers. Locusts can fly up to two kilometers in the air and have even been reported to travel over whole oceans. It can comprise tens of millions of locusts, each eating their own weight in food every day. However, we hope that by conducting further research we might find better ways to break up swarms using similar methods.

In the past, management strategies have typically focused on creating exclusion zones—by burning tires to create an exclusion zonecatching them in nets, or digging trenches. At best, these local measures will prevent locusts from reaching a particular area, but can do little to halt the progress of the swarm.

Currently, the most commonly used control is insecticide. Sprayed from land or aerial vehicles, whole swarms can be targeted in relatively short periods of time. However, this has obviously led to some environmental concerns.

Perhaps more promising are so-called biological control mechanisms. Natural predators such as wasps, birds, and reptiles may prove effective at keeping small swarms at bay. However, for managing more established swarms, newly-developed targeted microbial biopesticedes, such as the fungus-based “Green Muscle,” offer a larger-scale solution.

However, one of the most effective ways to avoid the devastating effects of locust plagues is to prevent them from happening in the first place. Considerable resources are allocated to early warning and preventative control strategies. Locust monitoring stations collect data on weather, ecological conditions and locust numbers, making forecasts of the timing and location of breeding.

Despite these efforts, West Africa faced one of its largest locust outbreaks in 2003-2005. Cold, dry conditions in the winter finally allowed control agencies to halt the outbreak at a cost of around $400 million and harvest losses calculated at more than five times that amount.

Controlling locust swarms is no easy task. And the larger the swarms, the more difficult the task becomes. Prevention, then, is likely the best medicine, but this requires keeping a very keen eye out. Remember, it only takes three locusts to make a swarm.

This post originally appeared at The Conversation. Follow @US_conversation on Twitter. 

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