I am an Elegant Grasshopper: I am a farmer’s friend!

February 20, 2023

Elegant Grasshopper Experiment in Lesotho

The world is facing major planetary crises including pollution, loss of biodiversity, environmental degradation and climate change leading to major disruptions in the agricultural sector and impacting food security. The extreme weather conditions experienced today are creating ideal breeding conditions for dangerous and migratory pest infestations that threaten agricultural productivity. In the context of Africa alone, 20-40% loss in crop production was recorded due to pests' invasions, particularly in wheat, soybeans, and corn production with East African nations including Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Tanzania having suffered the most  infestations in over 2 decades.  FAO estimated that over 20.2 million people were facing severe food insecurity due to unusual weather and climate conditions and worsened by the infestation. This has amounted to around $8.1 billion in monetary losses and damages.

Early 2022, Lesotho suffered an infestation of locusts heavily affecting crop yields in Berea district. This was part of the infestation that South Africa faced, where the locust spread across provinces. The rains in the summer of 2021 to 2022 escalated and allowed the locusts to quickly breed. The winds also played a role in facilitating migration of the swarms to the areas where the locusts haven’t been seen before, and this included Lesotho as a neighboring country to South Africa.

Locust Infestation

Grasshoppers are known as one of the worst enemies to the farmer. They form and travel in large swarms which makes them spread easily across countries and territories. Grasshoppers breed rapidly, wherein a single female insect can lay egg pods containing 80-150 eggs. The damage caused by grasshoppers has a long-term effect on regrowth of crops and sustainability of community livelihoods. According to the IPC Acute Food Insecurity analysis, 15% of the 182,965 Berea’s population faced an acute food insecurity driven by climate related shocks inclusive of the heavy rains and the recent elegant grasshopper infestation among others, price shocks and economic decline caused by increasing inflation coupled with reduced income opportunities

The Lesotho Accelerator Lab has had a different insight found through solution mappingIt was discovered that grasshoppers can also be used as safe and effective pesticide and/or insecticide for certain crops. One farmer has used the elegant grasshopper to protect crops against other pests and as an organic pesticide and an alternative to buying commercial pesticides.

There is increasing evidence that the use of commercial pesticides is posing potential environmental and health risks, and that some of the commercially used pesticides are persistent in the environment. The pesticides are found to remain in the environment for years, affecting water sources, air and soil quality, and the crops they are meant to protect, leading to contamination of food chains.  The use of pesticides has been found to pose health risks affecting the nervous and respiratory systems, and is associated with causing some cancers. With these emerging trends on the impact of use of pesticides, there is a need to move towards sustainable and ecologically friendly approaches that will reform the agricultural sector and increase food production.

Could this be true?

When the solution of using an elegant grasshopper as a pesticide was shared with the public for validation or request for additional solutions, there were mixed reactions. Some applauded the innovation while others were skeptical. The Lab consulted further with stakeholders as this is a potential solution that could not just be left unvalidated. The innovation and indigenous knowledge were not only interesting to the Lab but even to the wider global community. It provided an opportunity to flip the narrative on an insect seen largely as a pest, to a valued part of our ecosystem, for pest control and enhanced productivity.

The Acclab therefore collaborated with the National University of Lesotho (NUL) on an experiment to validate the scientific merit of the farmer’s practice. NUL setup laboratory experiments to test elegant grasshopper extracts against known pests which attack specific plants species. As much as this was based on laboratory methodologies, the process did not entirely distort the method used by the farmers. The grasshoppers were harvested from the wild, dried, and then crushed into a powder. The solution was mixed with water like the farmer did and subjected to extraction processes which was followed by bioassay analysis. For the purposes of testing, black bean aphids were used to test the behavior of the elegant grasshopper solution on crops.

What we know

The findings from the various bioassay analyses conducted found that elegant grasshoppers have chemical compounds, which gives them pesticidal-like characteristics. The elegant grasshopper extract concentrations exerted 100% mortality rate in 24 hours when sprayed on black aphids. This grasshopper solution has far exceeded the performance of the commercially found pesticides such as malathion on the speed it killed black aphids.

Elegant Grasshopper

Another test was to check the repellency rate of the elegant grasshopper solution. The grasshopper has a pungent and toxic yellow fluid taken from the host of plants that they feed on.  From this finding, it can be concluded that elegant grasshopper also has repellence characteristics.

The grasshopper solution has also passed the health and safety test for human consumption and the environment. There are no known effects that were posed using the elegant grasshopper solution. From observation, it was also clear that the farmer's crops were healthy.

Food for thought

It is emerging that the traditional and indigenous knowledge around the use of elegant grasshoppers’ dates back to the agrarian era.  According to folklores, our forefathers in Lesotho have used the grasshopper for medicinal purposes and as a talisman to remove bad spirits. Traditional healers believed that grasshopper was one of the strongest components in medicine to repel evil spirits. How this knowledge can be used to support the farmers’ claims and the academic and anthropological research findings on the characteristics of the grasshopper remains to be explored. Perhaps this may be one of the strategies to  work with nature to reverse some of the environmental and health challenges that humans have caused and continue to cause, building on the indigenous knowledge.

This is not the end of the experiment. The lab intends to do more work and research to understand the behavior and characteristics of the elegant grasshopper. The additional research will assist in determining the feasibility and sustainability of the solution for a possibility to mass produce the pesticide for use in commercial and subsistence farming. There is need to also research on which host plants attract/breed grasshoppers. While also researching on the properties of the host plants in them having insecticidal/pesticidal properties.

In all future work around the elegant grasshopper solution, one thing to be cognisant of is the role the grasshoppers play in the ecosystem. It is known that grasshoppers benefit humans and the ecosystem in general by facilitating plant decomposition and regrowth, creating a balance between the types of plants that thrive. This  means that harvesting the elegant grasshoppers for use as a pesticide in large scale is likely to create an imbalance in the ecosystem.

To address this, the Lab will explore possibility of breeding the elegant grasshopper in controlled environments for mass production, working in collaboration with the National University of Lesotho.

However, should Lesotho face another grasshopper infestation in the near future which will pose a threat to the ecosystem and vegetation, it is believed that preliminary findings from this experiment could inform decisions taken by the responsible line ministry. The option would be to not kill them with other pesticides, rather to collect them and naturally kill for assisting in the production of large quantities of the solution. Another advantage would be for Lesotho can catch the grasshoppers and export them to other African countries where grasshoppers are delicacies.