Australian tank in the midst of a locust plague in 1974. Source: Australian Army Public Relations.
(This article was published as Roy Hay, ‘Biblical plague that failed to arrive,’ Geelong Advertiser, 28 July 2011, p. 28.)
What happened to the locusts?
Last August the papers and the airwaves were full of locusts, or to be more accurate, stories about an imminent plague of locusts which was going to come down from New South Wales and Northern Victoria to the outskirts of Melbourne and Geelong. So what happened? Did someone cry wolf? Did the locusts never appear or were they stopped in their tracks by human agency or natural causes?
The Department of Primary Industries (DPI) was very concerned at the time. Their website announced â€˜Scientists estimate that Victoria could be facing the worst locust plague since the 1930sâ€™. This was enough to set the media mills spinning and you could have been forgiven for thinking that your backyard was going to be full of the critters almost overnight.
The Victorian government, not surprisingly, was very alarmed at the threat to farms and orchards and the income, employment and food supply which depended on them. It embarked on a $2 million multimedia campaign to urge Victorians to help combat the threat. Interactive maps on the DPI website allowed locust sightings to be reported, a rebate of 100 per cent on insecticide was provided to landholders in the affected areas and community meetings were organised. Special sites on public land were opened to protect the Stateâ€™s $100 million bee industry. Organic farmers were given assurances that a suitable insecticide would be available to meet their needs.
In September floods were inundating large areas of New South Wales and Queensland but the Plague Locust Commissioner thought initially that this was unlikely to affect eggs buried underground. Social media came into play as the DPI set up a locust twitter page. SMS updates were available. Landowners were reminded of the critical couple of weeks between the hatching of locusts and their gaining the ability to fly. That was the moment for the most efficient spraying. Incident-control centres were set up and by the end of September over 750 square kilometres had been sprayed from the air in New South Wales and Victoria geared up to follow.
Wild and cooler weather early in October helped delay the onset of locust development, but hindered spraying. By early November locust hoppers were at point of flight in the Mallee and there were reports of locusts in some residential areas in the north of the state. The Australian Plague Locust Commission (APLC) provided DPI with locust information, advice, images and support as well undertaking aerial spraying in the Mallee. â€˜Their efforts and support to minimise the damage caused by locusts in Victoria has been exceptionalâ€™, the DPI reported. In early December heavy rain once again slowed locust activity. The DPI was now worried that vigilance would fall off and cautioned that a second generation of locusts might now emerge. But the rain continued to fall and floods occurred across the north of the state into the new year. By June 2011 the DPI could report that â€˜locust numbers have returned to near normal levels in most areasâ€™.
So a combination of an almost military effort by the DPI, APLC, and local communities and landowners, and the spectacular breaking of the drought in one of the wettest, coolest and windiest summers in recent years in the areas most at risk helped scotch the locusts this time. The Federal Department of Agriculture and Fisheries continues to monitor locust activity and to forecast likely outbreaks and their timing.
A few locusts did get through into Melbourne in December 2010, sparking a brief upsurge of stories, but that soon petered out. The worst plague since the 1930s did not eventuate this time.