Grasshoppers invade the beaches

What in the world?

Coastal Point • US FISH & Wildlife: Not one of the local offenders, but you get the picture.Coastal Point • US FISH & Wildlife
Not one of the local offenders, but you get the picture.

Was it an omen? An Egyptian plague? Or just one of those things that no one can really explain?

Whatever the reason, it seems that grasshoppers have invaded the beaches. Well, at least on Friday, Aug. 1, they did. And people at least think they were grasshoppers.

Since then, the unexpected swarm of summer guests seems to have drowned, been eaten or gone back where they came from, with just a few stragglers remaining.

Tim Ferry, captain of the Fenwick Island Beach Patrol said his lifeguards’ daily workout started out the same as usual last Friday, but with “brutal” flies. Then, as the morning progressed, they started noticing the grasshoppers.

“They were everywhere,” said Ferry. “On the lifeguard stands, the rescue stands, the water, up to the water. It was almost like a partial plague.”

Ferry said the only thing he could surmise is that it had something to do with the west wind.

“Typically, when something is out of the ordinary, it’s because of that,” he said. “The ocean side had a different wind and was really foggy all week, and inland it was hotter. When it’s hot and humid inland, plus the west wind, I’ve seen it bring in flies, sometimes gnats. The only thing I can come up with is the west wind.”

Dr. Cory Whaley of the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension agreed that it was strange. Whaley, who was on the beach in Fenwick Island last Friday, said he had never seen anything like it and agreed that most likely the westerly wind brought the insects to the beach from the marsh area.

Levi Lloyd, 13, of Ocean View, was on the beach in Bethany Beach on Friday and got to see the phenomenon firsthand.

“There were hundreds of them,” he said. “You couldn’t go in the ocean without a swarm of them around you. There were so many one even came home with us in our bag!”

Virginia resident Terry Titus, vacationing in South Bethany last Friday, also noticed the sudden swarm of grasshoppers on the beach there. He said it was quickly followed by another kind of swarm, as seagulls rushed in and devoured nearly every single one of the insects.

Many people who were at the beaches between Bethany and Ocean City, Md., blogged about the grasshoppers online afterward, saying things like, “In 30 plus years of vacationing here I’ve never seen anything like it,” and “Where did they all come from?” Most seemed convinced they came out of the water — something with which both Ferry and Whaley disagree.

“They did not come out of the water,” said Ferry, although many did either end up in the water or at the shoreline, as most beachgoers do on a hot day in August.

“Basically, it was business as usual,” said Ferry of the bugs’ impact. “Kids played with them, they did not really disrupt the day. People were more curious than anything. It was something we dealt with, because we couldn’t really do anything about it.”

While a swarm of such insects often brings thoughts of Biblical plagues of locusts, the consensus appears to be that these were simply garden-variety grasshoppers.

However, according to researchers of Swarm-Cast, a California State Long Beach-based software developed by a team of researchers studying advanced warning of locust attacks, locusts could in fact, and have been known to, swim across the Atlantic Ocean, traveling distances of more than 6,000 miles. The last modern-day occurrence was in 1998, when a swarm of desert locusts crossed the Atlantic, traveling from Africa to the Caribbean.

According to their report, Swarm Cast, from June of 2006, “The Desert Locust, Schistocerca Gregaria, belong to a large family of insects commonly called grasshoppers. However, desert locusts differ from their grasshopper brethren in that they have the ability to spontaneously change their behavior and migrate over very large distances.”

The report states that the desert locusts, during quiet times, generally live in areas with less than 200 millimeters of rain annually “such as the coastal regions along the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, where there is suitable year-round locust breeding conditions.” It mentions that during plagues, they could spread over an area of about 11 million square miles, extending over or into parts of 60 countries — or more than 20 percent of the total land surface of the world.

But since the report also states that the latest major outbreak, in 2004, was in North Eastern Africa and the Southern Middle East, and in fact involved locusts and not grasshoppers, one has to surmise that last Friday’s “partial plague” came from the other way — inland — and just happened to land on the beaches, with some just happening to make it into the surf.