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Insect scourge hops into Suncoast

A plague of grasshoppers is chewing its way across East Pasco and Hernando counties and threatening to destroy everything in its path: orange trees, plants in commercial nurseries, lawns and flower gardens. "The seriousness of it is far more grave than anybody thought," said Dade City lawyer and landowner Glen Greenfelder. Like many people, Greenfelder was skeptical at first about the infestation, Florida's worst since the early 1950s.

"I just didn't believe that you could look at two or three acres and see the whole field just move like water," he said. "It's absolutely the worst thing you've ever seen. It's like something out of a Hitchcock movie."

State agricultural officials who have surveyed the outbreak estimate that the grasshoppers now range across 42,250 acres in Pasco and 8,960 acres in Hernando. The infested area includes 6,000 acres of citrus groves and 13,000 acres of cultivated pine trees.

"There is no question in my mind that we have severe problem with this grasshopper," said Richard Gaskalla, director of the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services' division of plant industry.

The critter in question is the American grasshopper, a close relative of the desert locust of Africa and the Middle East. Known in scientific circles as Schistocerca americana, it also is called the "bird grasshopper" because adults can fly long distances quickly, just like birds.

Local farmers say they have sprayed their crops and groves repeatedly, but they fear that they cannot wipe out the grasshoppers on their own land, let alone keep out grasshoppers from neighbors' land.

On Monday night, farmers and citrus growers met at the Pasco County Fairgrounds, itself the scene of a grasshopper infestation, to call for the kind of aerial spraying that would follow the discovery of a Mediterranean fruit fly.

Gaskalla said he would recommend that the state quickly test pesticides to find out what is most effective against the grasshoppers. After that, the state could consider using aerial spraying on the hottest of the "hot spots," he said.

On Tuesday, county commissioners compared the outbreak to an Old Testament-style plague of locusts and joined the voices calling for state help.

"I believe we have a severe problem with a tremendous potential for agricultural damage," Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said.

Allen Altman, manager of the Farm Bureau insurance agency in Dade City, said he knows of three groves that have been virtually eaten away. About 95 percent of the foliage was eaten in two of the groves. He also knows of two or three other groves where 25 to 50 percent of the trees had been destroyed.

A particular set of circumstances has led to the outbreak, said John Capinera, chairman of the department of entomology and nematology at the University of Florida.

The grasshoppers tend to plant their eggs in the kind of weedy undergrowth commonly found in stands of commercially planted pine trees, he said. The eggs hatch, and the young grasshoppers eat whatever is available, then move on.

Although Capinera said grasshoppers don't particularly like citrus, farmers said the bugs aren't picky. They have been known to strip trees of leaves and bark, chew into clothing, munch through screens, even nibble on paint.

"They'll just keeping eating and eating," James Harris said as he held a dead citrus branch that had been stripped of its bark. "It doesn't matter if it's green or dead or what."

For citrus farmers who weathered devastating freezes in the 1980s, the grasshopper outbreak carries a cruel, ironic twist. While some patiently began to revive their groves, others switched to the pine trees that have provided the grasshoppers much of their breeding ground.

"The freeze is a contributing factor," Altman said, "because before the freeze, all of the acres that are now in planted pines were in cultivated citrus."