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Insect invasion: Israel battles plague of locusts

The Negev Desert is alive – with locusts. Huge swarms of the newly hatched critters have begun marching across the land, devouring everything in their path. By NBC News' Dave Copeland.

TEL AVIV — Israel’s Negev Desert is alive – with locusts.

Huge swarms of the newly hatched critters have begun marching across the sand, devouring everything in their path.

With the help of high-tech irrigation methods, much of Israel’s desert has been transformed into lush farmland that supplies supermarkets across the country with fresh produce. But the swarm of locusts, which locals say is the worst infestation in decades, is threatening crops and farms.

Israel’s Agriculture Ministry has deployed pickup trucks, planes and helicopters to spray pesticides on the locusts before they can inflict more damage.

“They are easy targets now, but in two or three days when their wings develop, it will be a disaster,” said Lior Katari, one of the Agriculture Ministry’s coordinators.

Experts estimate that a swarm of 30 million locusts in Egypt will cause severe crop damage. The correlation to the plague of locusts in the Bible has the Internet buzzing.

Adult locusts arrived in the area in March. Scientists say they likely originated in Sudan and crossed from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula into Israel. Then they mated and laid billions of eggs in the sand which are now hatching.

Teams of exterminators are working from sunrise to sunset, spraying the millions of young locusts as they move across the ground.

NBC News spent a few hours with a team of sprayers equipped with a large tank of insecticide in a 4 x 4 pickup truck on Sunday. They received constant updates from observers in helicopters and colleagues on the ground telling them where to go.

“Quickly, we need to go to Revavim! It’s full of them,” said Yigal Maria, a specialist exterminator drafted from northern Israel to help out, referring to a small community near the border with Egypt.

His assistant, Yuval Bashari, leaned out of the window with a spray gun, dousing the locusts with pesticides.

“Look over there, you see all that green? It’s locusts! Can you believe it?” Bashari shouted.  

The ground was covered with what looked like a slow-moving green carpet. Millions of locusts, all moving in the same direction, made a loud rustling sound as they devoured everything in their path.

The spray team started to circle the swarm, moving slowly from the outer edge inwards. The locusts panicked, trying to leap out of the way of the vehicle and the milky white spray. Many perished under the wheels of the vehicle. It took about 30 minutes to finish them off.

“Let’s go, we are finished here,” Maria shouted.  “We need to eat something before they call us again.”

Dave Copeland / NBC News

Golan Cohen, owner of an organic herb farm, supervises volunteer workers covering his vines on Sunday.

The insecticides worked – but that doesn’t help organic farmers who can’t use pesticides.

“They were eating the weeds at first, they were small, so we ignored them,” said Golan Cohen, the owner of an organic farm that grows desert herbs used in the United States for medical research.

But when things got bad, they resorted to non-invasive, but also less effective, means to ward off the menace.

“At first we just made noise, banging pots and shouting – and it worked,” said Dror Cohen-Chen, a worker on Cohen’s farm near the Egyptian border. But that technique didn’t last long.

“The next day we came back and they had destroyed everything,” said Cohen.

As he spoke, a busload of volunteers turned up to help.   

“It’s really warming the heart to see [the volunteers]. It’s strengthening us, because we had a very hard week of struggling with the locusts.”

Eli Hanev, a sunburned and dust-covered local, had been up since dawn spraying pesticides in another area. He sauntered up to the organic farm, a 9mm pistol on his hip.

“Three thousand years ago God sent the Egyptians a plague of locusts, now we are getting them back….” he said, the rest of his sentence drowned out by a helicopter swooping low overhead.

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