The Heat Is Online

Billions of Locusts Blacken Australian Skies

Australia Grain - 100 billion locusts turn sky black

Reuters News Service, PlanetArk, May 8, 2000

SYDNEY - Australian locust hunters are battling a plague of 100 billion wheat and barley-eating insects, with swarms so dense in places they are turning the sky black and giving false readings of heavy rain in outback weather stations.

The locust plague, the worst in some regions for nearly 50 years, is threatening wheat and barley crops now coming out of the ground, and delaying planting in other areas.

But Australia is still likely to produce a big wheat crop. Graeme Hamilton, director of the official Australian Plague Locust Commission, estimates that if "controlled" the locusts are unlikely to destroy much more than one percent of the crop.

At worst they could devour two to four percent of a wheat crop presently forecast at more than 22 million tonnes - around the third highest on record.

Some wheat areas would be totally devastated by the locust plague, driving growers to the wall, while other areas could escape relatively unharmed, Hamilton said.

Throughout Australia the locusts had the potential to do over A$200 million worth of damage to wheat and barley crops. But no particular grade or segregation of wheat would be completely decimated, Hamilton said, adding that it was very difficult to predict the damage.

BILLIONS OF LOCUSTS KILLED, BILLIONS REMAIN

The Plague Locust Commission has been working for a month to get the locusts under control, carrying out hundreds of aerial insecticide spraying missions in outback areas from the far north of South Australia to the far northwest of New South Wales.

Some officials say that up to 50 billion locusts, or half the the original size of the plague, have been killed. Others say the number is less.

"I can't say the situation has eased. We have continued to control but the locusts have continued to spread," one official said. "We've taken out some. But the size and extent of the population has been unexpectedly large."

Each patrol, or aerial pesticide spraying operation, is estimated to have killed one to 20 million locusts, based on a density of several thousand locusts per square metre at the thickest part of a swarm.

The commission continued its air raids on the locusts up until Monday this week, but has now stopped because the weather is turning cool, making the locusts less active and less obvious as targets.

Meanwhile, the locusts are laying large numbers of new eggs, preparing for next spring's hatching to take over from where the February hatching left off.

"They're still posing a threat and that threat will remain right through to spring," Hamilton said. "While they (locusts) are doing localised damage now the threat remains of much greater damage in the spring."

GROWERS UNCERTAIN WHETHER TO PLANT

"We have a huge threat facing us in the spring," said an official with the South Australian Department of Primary Industry, who put the number of locusts at "possibly in the trillions". The potential area under threat in South Australia alone was three million hectares.

"(There is) a very high chance that there will be good egg survival to hatch in the spring. Our department is already starting to plan for something very very big, probably the biggest ever," he said. "Winter is the planning season for the spring onslaught," he said.

Worst damage is presently occurring in the Port Pirie area of South Australia and elsewhere around the marginal edge of the eastern wheat belt. This has left growers between Broken Hill and Mildura in NSW uncertain whether to put crops in now or wait.

Many growers would not have seed to re-sow or the money to buy new seed if hit by a locust attack, Hamilton said.

Meanwhile, the same warm, wet weather which has encouraged the locust plague is providing good to excellent levels of sub-soil moisture for the coming wheat and barley crops.

National wheat exporter AWB Ltd is looking for a similar wheat plant to last season's 12 million hectares, which produced a record 24 million tonnes.


Story by Michael Byrnes REUTERS NEWS SERVICE