As several millions of locusts tear through Turkana wilderness to advance to greener grasslands in Uganda, emotions are high among local farmers across the country.
Uganda is no new territory to locusts. Seventy years ago, they were devouring crops and feasting on the last tree leaf at the edge of the country.
No one can pinpoint what exactly caused the return of locusts, but experts say the heavy rain experienced last year around the Horn of Africa and the Persian Gulf provided perfect humid conditions for the pests to breed and form swarms to migrate to other far off places.
Experts further reinforce their argument saying global warming facilitated the locust breeding. They explain that eggs of insects hatch more successfully in warmer and moister conditions.
They also say the current war in Yemen on the Red Sea coast and Somalia in the Horn of Africa, made the locust breeding areas inaccessible by regional control bodies to monitor and disable the reproduction process.
Whereas we have been told that no one but government can confront locusts, fresh insights from other experts and new innovations from countries battling these pests reveal that farm owners can do something to protect their crops.
Maintain trees and shrubs
According to Rutazaana Ubaldo, an entomologist at the College of Natural Sciences at Makerere University, trees and shrubs habour natural enemies against locusts.
He says tree leaves also cover up the ground surface, depriving locust access to soil where they can lay their eggs that hatch between 10 to 14 days to cause more havoc.
“Besides discouraging locusts from staying and laying eggs, these trees, shrubs and flowering plants shelter birds, parasitic wasps and other natural enemies of locusts,” Mr Rutazaana said.
He also says having a good vegetation cover discourages locusts from laying eggs into the ground. It also makes it harder for the hatched locusts to emerge from the soil.
However, Dr Talwana says trees and shrubs provide the best nesting grounds for locusts, except those known to have insecticidal properties, like the Neem tree, although he admits a great forest and vegetation cover can lessen the locus havoc.
“A good forest cover will mask their [locusts] sight for the brownness of the soil and thus disrupt egg laying,” he says.
“But locusts will be able to differentiate between a tree and grass. So they will settle in a grassland if they wish to lay eggs. That explains why a random sighting of locusts shows they are searching for suitable egg laying sites,” he added.
Ducks and chicken can do the job
Birds crave insects including locusts as food. According to Dr John Bahana, an entomologist and advisor to Ministry of Agriculture on locust control, locusts are very rich in proteins, a nutrient that fastens growth.
During the major locust invasion in China between April and July in 2000, the country explored the potential of chicken and ducks to capture the hopping insects.
The China government through animal experts trained 700,000 ducks and chicken to attack the locusts. By the time of release of the feathered army in China’s Xinjiang province, locusts had already destroyed 3.8 million hectares of crops and grassland in the country.
The trained birds were sent to the field where there were locust eggs and nymphs. A whistle would be blown and the birds would start searching and devouring the eggs and nymphs.
The ducks were, however, more effective than chicken because of their usual gluttonous feeding ways. According to records, ducks can gobble up to more than 400 insects a day, though they are slower. Being a success in 2000, in 2018, Xinjiang province officials handed 2,200 chickens to local herdsmen to fight a new locusts invasion.
Dr Talwana says this method will be hard to apply in Uganda.
Helps to scare. People have been using noise to scare away destructive pests like birds from their farms since time immemorial and locusts are no exception.
If you spend good hours attending to your garden or have employed some farm workers, this method will reduce the damage locusts will inflict on your garden.
Dr Herbert Talwana, an entomologist at Makerere University College of Agriculture, says locusts are a group of insects known for stridualtion -ability to make and detect sounds.
“Any other noise other than their “music” – which is an important part of the courting and mating process, will disrupt them and thus flee,” says Talwana.
Simple automated machine. Farmers who are battling desert locusts in Pakistan have fabricated a simple automated machine that makes noise to scare away locusts from their gardens. The machine is fabricated locally and is powered by solar. The machine has a metallic material that can be banged to produce high pitched noise, a hammer for banging and solar panel to power the system.
Dr Talwana reasons that this method can work but not on large-scale farms.
“This is feasible for a small setting but can hardly work for a swarm covering 40 square kilometres or over hills, forests, rivers and swamps,” Talwana adds.
Exhume. Locusts lay their eggs, 10 to 20 centimetres into the ground, about the length of a set ruler. The simple way to expose and disarm this time bomb is to get them out. According to Rutazaana, an ox-plough can execute this task.
“This will expose the eggs to harsh weather conditions like scorching sun so they lose vitality to hatch,” the entomologist says.
However, he says ox-ploughs cannot be very exact in digging the eggs out as locusts lay at different depths depending on how hard or soft the soil is.
You will know that locusts are laying their eggs when you see them swarming in a particular place and pushing their abdomen into the ground.
Locusts lay their eggs in pods. They lay about 100 eggs in a hole below the ground and cover them with a foam that looks like a sponge.