The wanted posters for New Mexico's early pests told tales of terror and marauding gangs running out of control. Millions of dollars of property were destroyed.
|Spreading the word: By the time this poster was exhibited at the Taos County Fair in September 1934, the county's grasshopper control project included 10,000 treated acres.(College archives)|
|Voracious insects like caterpillars and grasshoppers wreaked havoc as they ate their way across the state, just waiting to be discovered by early entomologists like C.H. Tyler Townsend and T.D.A. Cockerell.|
Charles Henry Tyler Townsend(1863-1944)
Townsend came to the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, now NMSU, in 1891. Born in Oberlin, Ohio, Townsend attended high school in Michigan. He was one of the first entomologists to study the habits of the boll weevil in Texas, to describe it as an injurious cotton pest and to recommend control methods.
"Early entomologists were essentially transported to Mars when they came to New Mexico Territory," says Carol Sutherland, entomologist with NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service. "Everything they saw was 'new' and could be documented easily."
During Townsend's first year at the college, he collected native insects, filling 20 large cabinet boxes. The 1890-1891 Annual Report of the Board of Regents proclaims that during his first year he made notes on more than 230 species, most of which were damaging to livestock or crops. Townsend spent approximately $577 on entomological equipment for his lab that first year.
In 1893, Townsend added notes on an additional 170 insects in the Mesilla Valley, found mostly on alfalfa, mesquite and cottonwood. He authored 90 publications but spent less than $200 on entomological expenses.
"Early professors also served as mentors to their communities," Sutherland says. "They shared their information with residents to help them through a difficult time when farming in the Mesilla Valley was more risky, before the Elephant Butte Irrigation District was established."
After three years with the college, Townsend exchanged jobs with T.D.A. Cockerell, then curator at the Public Museum in Kingston, Jamaica. He continued to work closely with Cockerell on assignments for the college.
"Among entomologists, Townsend is known for two things-discovery of the insect carrier of tropical fever in the Andes, and a big mistake about deer bot flies that was perpetuated in scholarly journals for years," says David Richman, science specialist with NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station.
During a mountain excursion, Townsend observed deer bot flies traveling fast enough to be a blur. He calculated their speed, accounting for the downhill velocity, and deduced the insects could fly 600 to 800 miles per hour.
"His incorrect calculations were quoted in journals for years. No one questioned what would actually happen to the soft tissue of a deer's nose if an insect hit it at 600 miles per hour," Richman says. "To be a blur, the insects were probably traveling about 20 miles per hour."
Theodore Dru Alison Cockerell (1866-1948)
Born in Norwood, England, a suburb of London, T.D.A. Cockerell came about his love of science naturally. His father was a naturalist and an avid reader of Darwin.
Cockerell worked until he was 20 in flour mills in London. He developed tuberculosis and sailed to the United States in 1887 in search of a better climate. After three years in Westcliff, Colo., he returned to England to work in the British Museum and eventually accepted a job as curator of the Public Museum in Kingston, Jamaica.
The humid climate intensified his tuberculosis and, in 1893, he switched jobs with his friend Townsend.
"The job switch wasn't approved by the regents, so it was in dispute with administrators for about a year," Richman says. "It also was a very political time, and Cockerell was a socialist hired by Republicans."
|Famous namesake: Sam Steel, who was murdered prior to graduation, had a mealybug named in his honor by Cockerell. (College archives)|
In his early years at the college, Cockerell traveled the state documenting his insect finds. He spent two months in Santa Fe in 1894, where nearly 1,000 insects were collected.
He honored his former student Sam Steel by naming a mealybug in his memory. Steel discovered the critter, Spillococcus steelii, during an insect-collecting excursion in the Mesilla Valley with Townsend and Cockerell. Steel would have been the college's first graduate had he not been murdered in 1893, prior to graduation.
The first student to graduate under Cockerell's direction was Mary Casad, who went on to prepare her thesis on wild bees of the Mesilla Valley that colonized in the Organ Mountains.
"Cockerell was an early advocate of field research stations for the college, although some experts felt they were an unnecessary expense," Richman says.
In the 1895-1896 Annual Report to the Regents, Cockerell was credited with making the first Farmer's Institute a success. This Extension-type program was a school for farmers and their families to exchange information.
The college's Experiment Station director was so pleased with the success that he offered to "send a station worker, between December 1 and March 5, to any town south of Albuquerque to assist in holding a Farmer's Institute for three days, upon their guarantee that expenses will not exceed $25."
Haunted by what he thought was his impending death from tuberculosis, Cockerell published his findings in flurries. "He was so afraid of dying that he published everything he could," Sutherland says. "Sometimes his 'publications' were just notes scrawled on index cards." Cockerell published about 4,000 documents during his career.
"Even though he never received a degree in higher education, Cockerell was an expert on fossils, insects, roses and sunflowers," Richman says. "He was a true Renaissance man."
Cockerell's work extended far beyond New Mexico. He collaborated with scientists from various states including Nathan Banks, curator at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, by providing New Mexico specimens for insect collections.
Cockerell left the college at the turn of the century, leaving his extensive insect collection unattended. "A lot of these early specimens were thrown away because of insect damage," Sutherland says. "Most of the remaining collection was move to the biology department."
Dry Spell of Scientists, But Not Insects
New Mexico entomology was badly neglected from 1900 to the 1950s. Visiting scientists would travel through the state, setting up temporary camps to study insects.
"This drought of researchers happened during a time of important pest problems in New Mexico," Sutherland says. "Some of the most devastating insects of the time were range caterpillars and grasshoppers."
The outbreak of range caterpillars began in 1928 in northeastern New Mexico. The pests were approximately 3 inches long and were covered with black, barbed spines, which were irritating and poisonous to livestock and humans. The caterpillars caused great forage losses not only because they ate so much grass, but also because cattle would not graze where the spiny pests had crawled.
|Hop to it: Some farmers and ranchers used "hopper dozers" (right) attached to vehicles to scoop up destructive grasshoppers. Others opted to burn infested areas with makeshift oil burners. (left) (College archives)|
In May 1931, about 2 million natural parasites of the range caterpillar were released, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Entomology. "Over the years, other control methods included airplane spraying and mist blowers attached to the beds of pickup trucks," says Mike English, entomologist and superintendent of the Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas. "These brought the pest under control, but annual spray treatments were done until about 10 years ago".
Following hot on the heels of the caterpillars was a grasshopper plague. In the Midwest and West, approximately 80,000 tons of poison bait were distributed in 1934.
Dropping the bait from airplanes was used in conjunction with burning infested areas and scooping up the insects with "hopper dozers" attached to the fronts of vehicles.
"In New Mexico's northern counties, prolonged drought accompanied the increase in grasshopper populations," Richman says. Grasshopper counts in San Juan County ranged from 374 per square yard near Blanco to as many as 1,136 per square yard at La Plata.
After a period of reduced populations, grasshopper numbers exploded again in 1967, severely infesting 19 of New Mexico's 33 counties. Since that time, populations have fluctuated dramatically. Annual surveys are conducted by state or federal agencies to estimate grasshopper densities on millions of acres of rangeland.
"Grasshoppers are a recurring problem," English says. "We lost our fight with insects from the very beginning."
Today, the hunt continues. Scientists check known hideouts and monitor insect movements, searching for New Mexico's next band of outlaws.