Earlier this month, hordes of winged ants took flight in southern England, forming swarms so dense that they showed up as rain on radar. Now, a similar phenomenon is taking place across the pond—only this time, the insects in question are grasshoppers, and their target is the bustling metropolis of Las Vegas.
Last weekend, the local National Weather Service posted eerie radar footage of the city on Twitter, explaining, “Radar analysis suggests most of these echoes are biological targets. This typically includes birds, bats, and bugs, and most likely in our case … grasshoppers.”
Photos and videos of the insect invasion reveal pallid-winged grasshoppers flocking to Sin City en masse. Some groups converge on the bright lights of Vegas’ many casinos, including the famed Luxor Sky Beam, while others litter the sidewalk, making it impossible to walk even a few feet without encountering mobs of flying bugs.
The infestation may sound like a scene straight out of an apocalyptic thriller, but as Jeff Knight, state entomologist for the Nevada Department of Agriculture, told reporters last Thursday, the grasshoppers, which are likely migrating in greater numbers due to the year’s unusually heavy rainfall, pose no threat to humans.
“They don’t carry any diseases,” he said, adding, “They don’t bite. They’re not even one of the species that we consider a problem. They probably won’t cause much damage in a yard.”
Per the Associated Press, the scale of the species’ current migration is unusual but not unprecedented. Knight, who has worked at the Department of Agriculture for more than 30 years, said he had previously experienced at least four or five similar swarming events, including one that occurred around six or seven years ago.
As CNN’s Theresa Waldrop notes, Vegas has received 4.63 inches of rain this year—a figure far greater than the city’s annual average of just under 4.2 inches. Given the fact that pallid-winged grasshoppers tend to migrate following extremely wet winters or springs, Mindy Weisberger writes for Live Science, the insects’ current migration pattern makes sense.
Some of you have been asking about the widespread radar returns the past few nights in #Vegas. Radar analysis suggests most of these echoes are biological targets. This typically includes birds, bats, and bugs, and most likely in our case--> Grasshoppers. #VegasWeather pic.twitter.com/reQX7hJR7Y— NWS Las Vegas (@NWSVegas) July 27, 2019
Once grasshopper populations reach capacity, members of the group move on, guided by an uptick in serotonin that signals when to take collective flight. Knight, as quoted by Weisberger, explains that the creatures travel at night and can cover “a couple hundred miles, at least,” over the course of their northward journey.
Clay Morgan, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, tells the Washington Post’s Hannah Knowles that the swarms recently spotted on radar actually represent just a “very small subset of what’s actually happening, grasshopper-wise.” Typically, the insects stay close enough to the ground to avoid showing up on radar, but as Alex Boothe, another local meteorologist, says to the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Katelyn Newberg, high wind gusts in the area may have pushed the animals up to higher altitudes.
According to Ed Komenda of the Reno Gazette Journal, the grasshoppers will likely be in town for several weeks at most. Pesticides won’t deter their progress, as a new wave of insects would simply replace the one eliminated the next night, but many will fall prey to predators such as birds, coyotes and other insects. Locals hoping to ward off the creatures can replace ultraviolet lights with amber-colored bulbs or simply try to scare them away.
So I guess grasshoppers really have taken over Las Vegas pic.twitter.com/x5n6HxWV30— Brittani (@TheBrittWithAnI) July 26, 2019
“People don’t like [grasshoppers],” Knight tells the New York Times’ Neil Vigdor. “That’s understandable.”
Still, it’s worth remembering that the insects are harmless—and largely undeserving of their bad reputation.
Jeff Lockwood, a researcher at the University of Wyoming who has written extensively on grasshoppers, says, “We can probably blame the Book of Exodus,” which details a plague of locusts unleashed on Egypt in retaliation for keeping the Israelites enslaved, for the species’ notoriety.
“I think that kind of planted a seed in Western culture and Western mindset of these outbreaks sort of being dark and dangerous,” Lockwood concludes to Vigdor.
In actuality, a meeting with one of Vegas’ unwelcome visitors can have a happy ending: As Knight tells the Reno Gazette Journal’s Komenda, if a grasshopper flies in while you’re driving down the highway, “Don’t worry about it. They’re not going to bite you, they’re not going to sting you. Pull over, open the windows, let it out.”