Carroll Collier’s hand pulls open a gate leading into one of the pastures on his farm in Crafton.
With each footfall, dozens of grasshoppers fly in random directions. The yellow, black and tan striped insects camouflage so well with the desiccated grasses, they appear to materialize out of nothing, sailing in buzzed arcs across the fields.
Collier, looking out beneath a cowboy hat, holds up a sprig of grass he just plucked from the pasture.
“You can see how they stripped all the good foliage off the Bermuda,” he said. “They take the tender leaf and only leave the stem.”
This spring and summer swarms of grasshoppers have decimated the grass in his pastures. Collier, 68, and his wife, Jeane, run a beef cattle farm on the northwest corner of the county. He’s lived and worked on the land there his entire life. He and his wife raise and grow almost all their own food.
They’ve seen tough times on the farm, such as the drought of 1980. But last year’s drought, and the grasshopper swarms of the past two years are some of the toughest he’s ever seen.
“They take the forage away from us,” he said. “And it’s not economical to spray the pasture for them.”
The insects eat a remarkable amount of foliage.
“If you have 30 grasshoppers per square yard, that’s the equivalent of a cow, and lots of places are easily running those numbers,” said entomologist Chris Sansome. “The biggest problem is that there are massive numbers, and they just keep coming.”
Sansome, who just retired from 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.
“It’s most likely because it was really hot and dry last year,” said Mike Merchant, an urban entomologist in Dallas with Texas Agrilife Extension Service. “Drought conditions tend to be favorable to grasshopper populations the following year.
“There’s not a lot of research on Texas grasshoppers. We know they do follow drought. There is a higher survival rate of grasshopper eggs laid in drought-stricken soil.”
And the longer the drought, the longer they’ll stick around.
“Grasshoppers don’t like wet weather,” said Todd Vineyard, agent with the Texas Agrilife Extension office in Decatur. “They get a fungus on them when it’s wet. It kills a lot of them off.”
The office serving Wise County has fielded scores of calls over the past two months from panicked homeowners.
“People go on vacation and come back to find every bush and tree in their yard left bare,” said Vineyard.
But Vineyard said the shrubs and trees can still be saved.
“Most of it is superficial damage,” he said. “If you keep watering and taking care of them, most of the trees and shrubs will be OK.”
Allyson Murray, an employee at Decatur Garden Center, has been directing customers to the pesticide aisle all summer to help them combat the grasshopper hordes.
“I don’t know of it ever being worse than it is this year,” Murray said. “I’ve even seen them eat the peaches off the tree. All that’s left is pits hanging from the branches.”
She said NoLo Bait is the best organic option for battling grasshoppers. Grasshoppers eat the bait and inadvertently ingest microorganisms that kill them from the inside out. It can even cause the disease to spread because other grasshoppers will cannibalize the dying ones.
Murray said Tempo is the strongest insecticide they offer to kill grasshoppers.
“But it is not for use in vegetable gardens,” she advised.
She recommended Cyonara for use in fruit and vegetable gardens. She also said homeowners must make sure they don’t have barren spots of dirt on their property.
“Use good cultural practices and use ground cover because grasshoppers lay their eggs on the bare ground,” she said.
Collier also has an organic form of pest control. A few hens peck and scratch the dusty ground near a score of calves getting weaned. The calves moo incessantly as the hens peck one grasshopper at a time.
“I call them my grasshopper control,” Collier said. “You’d be surprised how many grasshoppers a hen can eat.”
And the outbreaks vary from location to location. Collier knows people with land a couple miles down the road with little to no grasshoppers.
“The grasshoppers are spotty,” Merchant said. “It has to do with patterns of rainfall and micro-climates.”
But after working the land for so many years and knowing how much Mother Nature can throw at you, Collier maintains calm certitude about the future.
“I guess we’ll survive another one,” Collier said. “We always make it somehow.”