Here’s what Utahns are doing to battle ‘biblical’ grasshopper invasion

From bug zappers to dish soap, farmers and gardeners have drummed up all kinds of solutions for plant-munching pests.

(Steve C. Wilson | AP) Hoards of grasshoppers are seen jumping in the grass beside a barn in Tooele in 2009.

Earlier this spring, Neil Sorensen’s farm looked downright apocalyptic.

Juvenile grasshoppers covered almost every square inch. They leapt in swarms as he walked through his grain and alfalfa fields. They even blanketed the bare ground. It’s the worst infestation the Sanpete County-based grower said he’s ever seen.

“When they first started hatching, we knew it was going to be horrid,” Sorensen said. “Last year we had them bad, but this year was of biblical proportion.”

Utah may not be experiencing the hordes of Mormon crickets plaguing Nevada and Idaho this summer, but plant-munching grasshoppers are bugging plenty of residents across the state. Farmers have to fork out thousands of dollars for expensive pesticide applications, while gardeners face a shortage of their favorite grasshopper baits and have to resort to resourceful solutions.

“They come in waves, they bust and boom, they run in cycles,” said Kris Watson, Utah’s state entomologist who works for the Department of Agriculture and Food. “They’ll build over time every six to eight years, then they fade away.”

Grasshoppers are native to Utah, Watson noted, but that hasn’t given residents much solace.

Watson said he’s fielded complaints from farmers about infestations this year in Sanpete, Uintah, Sevier, Tooele and Box Elder counties. A query The Salt Lake Tribune posted to the Utah Gardeners Facebook group received more than 150 comments, with members also griping about grasshoppers in Utah, Davis, Weber, Morgan and Cache counties.

“If I wear a dress and walk through my yard they hop up my dress onto my legs,” wrote one Tooele County resident. “If I’m wearing pants they hop on my pants. If my window is down while I drive they hop into my car.”

Several Salt Lake County residents, however, said they hadn’t seen a single hopper all summer.

“It can be spotty county to county or within a county ... where they hatch out,” said Linden Greenhalgh, an extension professor for Utah State University. “For what reason, nobody knows.”

Where has all the Nolo gone?

In Sorensen’s case, he banded together with some of his neighbors in Sanpete County and paid a helicopter pilot to spray pest control across 1,900 acres, at a cost of about $10 an acre.

“We’ve got them slowed down,” he said, “but we’ve still got quite a few.”

The pesticides farmers use aren’t always available for homeowners looking to protect their flower and veggie plots. Many Utah gardeners want to avoid the chemicals typically used on grasshoppers anyway, fearing they’ll harm beneficial bugs like butterflies and bees.

It doesn’t help that a popular product for many organic gardeners, Nolo Bait, has disappeared from store shelves and online retailers in the past few years. The treatment mixes bran flakes grasshoppers like to gnaw with a parasite that specifically targets and kills the pests without harming pets, birds or beneficial insects.

“The struggle with grasshoppers and outage of nolo bait is nuts,” wrote one member of the Utah Gardeners Facebook group.

Colorado-based M&R Durango, which manufactures Nolo Bait, did not respond to inquiries about why their product is hard to find.

Another popular grasshopper bait, Eco-Bran, has also gone missing. Forestry Distributing, a major supplier of the product, also based in Colorado, notes on its website that carbaryl, the product’s active ingredient, is in short supply worldwide. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Gardeners share their grasshopper solutions

With their go-to controls mysteriously missing, many Utah gardeners have concocted creative fixes for keeping grasshoppers at bay.

Greenhalgh with the USU extension said spraying a simple mixture of dish soap and water can be highly effective.

“Grasshoppers breathe through vents along their body, they don’t breath through their mouth like we do,” he said. “The reason [soap] works is it’s viscous and sticky, so it plugs up their breathing ports.”

Unfortunately, it might be too late to make a dent in backyard grasshopper populations this year, since the bugs are best managed when they’re newly hatched.

“It’s harder to kill them when they’re bigger,” Greenhalgh said. “And think about the damage, all that growth they’ve put on is from your garden they’ve chomped down.”

But avid gardeners remain undeterred.

Aliya Jackson uses a hand-held electric fly swatter to zap the hoppers invading her yard in South Ogden. It kills smaller grasshoppers and stuns the big ones so they’re easier to squash.

“It’s pretty satisfying,” Jackson said. “You get a lot of them.”

They catch the bugs in a jar and feed them to her mom’s chameleon as well.

“That’s also really cathartic,” Jackson said.

Other members of the Utah Gardeners group suggested getting chickens, which happily devour grasshoppers, or encouraging wild birds. Diatomaceous earth is another organic control, made of crushed-up microorganism fossils that cut up and dry out pests’ exoskeletons.

Pleasant Grove resident M’Li Nielson Hoki runs the YouTube channel “Garden Wise Adventures.” She emphasized the importance of working as a community to keep grasshoppers under control. They’re highly mobile insects, especially when they become flying adults.

“Hopefully this is not going to continue to be a problem next year,” she said. “But I think if everyone works together and controls them in their neighborhoods, it might be easier individually.”

Roy resident Liz Landeros said she went from someone who couldn’t keep a houseplant alive to a master gardener in just two years, and she now works with plants full-time. She recommends growing extra ornamentals and produce, so some can get sacrificed to the hoppers.

“Then by the end of the season,” she said, “you [still] have the plants you want.”

While it’s frustrating to watch the yard get decimated by pests, Landeros encouraged growers to stay motivated.

“Keep trying,” she said. “I know it’s discouraging and heartbreaking to have your harvest go to waste, but keep trying.”

Is climate change fueling grasshopper outbreaks?

Grasshopper outbreaks appear to get triggered by climate oscillations like La Nina and El Nino, according to Chelse Prather, an associate professor of environmental biology at the University of Dayton.

“Certain [local] conditions can also lead to outbreaks,” she said. “If it’s been super dry for a few years, then you get a mild winter with lots of precipitation in the spring, it means lots of food for them.”

As cold-blood critters, grasshoppers love summer heat — they become more active as temperatures climb.

While human-caused climate change is making the planet hotter and drier, Prather said the available evidence shows all the fossil fuels we’re spewing into the atmosphere could actually pose a threat to grasshopper populations instead of sparking more outbreaks.

“As we have more carbon dioxide in the air, plants get bigger but they don’t have as many nutrients,” Prather said. “The grasshoppers have to eat more to get the same amounts of nutrition, so that really affects their growth and reproduction.”

Grasshoppers might stir the ire of farmers and gardeners, but they provide a lot of benefits. They’re food for many native bats and birds in the West. They help create more resilient plant communities. And their poop fertilizes the soil. There are more than 400 grasshopper species in North America that have adapted over millions of years to their local environment.

“It’s just a few problematic species,” Prather said, “that outbreak and give the rest of them a bad name.”