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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Ed Bianco, state entomologist, demonstrates how he sweeps an alfalfa field with a canvas net to determine the degree of grasshopper infestation.

BEAVER — They're small right now, but the grasshoppers munching on about 1,000 acres of mostly alfalfa fields near this city are going to grow — and eat, a lot, quickly. And they have Ed Bianco's attention.

"Look at this — look at here, they're all over," Bianco said Wednesday as he gathered up nymph 'hoppers in a canvas net. "You've got 50 per square yard."

A moment later the state entomologist revised that number to between 100 and 200 for the field he was standing in, tiny grasshoppers jumping all over. It only takes about eight per square yard to call it an infestation.

Nearly every year somewhere in Utah there are pockets of insect infestation or a bug, like the mountain pine beetle, to keep in check. Usually it's the Mormon crickets or grasshoppers that grab the headlines. But there's a lot more behind-the-scenes entomology going on throughout the state.

At a lumber yard, not far from the busy alfalfa fields, survey entomologist Clint Burfitt checked a funnel trap, with an eye on finding bark beetles.

"These are awesome collection sites," Burfitt said, looking at a mass of mostly black bugs of various sizes at the bottom of a funnel. "It also collects tons of other stuff, which is great for our reference files."

For a moment, tagging along with Burfitt and Bianco turns into brief synopsis of interesting finds around Utah. Like the pyrochoris apterus, also known as a fire bug. It's never been found in the U.S. until recently showing up in the Salt Lake City area.

"A lot of people don't know we're out here doing this work," said Burfitt, whose work helps federal officials decide what, if anything, to do about potentially invasive, non-indigenous insects. "We don't want Utah to be a field trial."

Traps were set this week at a nursery in Beaver to keep watch for two types of moths wreaking havoc in California, where they prefer eating apples and grapes and cause headaches for fruit farmers. The moths haven't been found in Utah, but Bianco and his staff of entomologists are being vigilant monitors.

Some species of foreign bugs, usually hitchhiking via various channels of commerce and travel, can't adapt, so they die off on their own. The grasshoppers and crickets, which were in Utah before pioneers settled the area in the 1800s, are a different story. Seagulls helped control crickets back then, but as the agriculture industry has grown away from the gulls' habitat, humans have had to handle things on their own.

At a meeting Wednesday night, Bianco was expecting to hear from ranchers who believe they may qualify for a state reimbursement program. Utah State University county extension agent Mark Nelson, who recently called Bianco for help, said the goal is to reduce costs by spraying about 1,000 acres in Beaver all at once.

Congress helped out Utah, Idaho and Nevada about six years ago, setting aside $20 million divided in thirds to fight pests that pose an economic burden on ranchers and farmers. The federal funds are disbursed through the state.

"We're to use it until it solves our problems," said Clair Allen, who along with Burfitt and Bianco work for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food's Division of Plant Industry.

Those who qualify with an infestation pay about one quarter of the cost of treating for crickets and 'hoppers, with the state picking up the rest of the tab.

In years past areas of Sanpete, Sevier and Millard counties — which Burfitt calls the "grasshopper belt" — have been hard hit. A moist spring and lots of plant growth aid in recurring infestations. Bianco said treatment programs have helped, with infestations of crickets and grasshoppers statewide not nearly as bad as in the mid-1980s or early 1990s.

Homeowner Rose Hutchings figured that about six of the past 27 years she has lived in Beaver have been defined by memorable grasshopper invasions. This year if the little 'hoppers move from the fields into town where she lives, she'll be ready.

"I'm a chemical fiend," Hutchings said. She'll spray when needed, intent on having a barbecue on her deck free from annoying jumpers. "Give me chemicals."


E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com