Passover came early this year as a swarm of locusts crossed into Israel from Egypt on Monday, threatening to ravage crops throughout the nation. Residents in Eilat, the town of Nitzana (on the Egyptian border) and as far north as Holon reported spotting the swarm. The Agriculture Ministry prepared to send out planes to spray pesticides over agricultural fields throughout the country on Monday at night, which is when locusts alight to rest.
"I was in the fields, tending to my greenhouse, when I saw thousands of insects flying at the greenhouses," said a farmer from Moshav Kmehin. "It's not so scary on a personal level, but I'm concerned as a farmer because locusts specialize in destroying crops."
Farmers in the area reported that a small swarm settled in the communities of Kmehin and Kadesh Barnea. According to Yankale Moskowitz, who is an agricultural R&D specialist in the Ramat Hanegev Regional Council, farmers were instructed to seal their hoophouses and greenhouses.
"At this point, we're estimating that the winds are pushing the swarm from the south into Israel," said Moskowitz.
Locusts are known to move with the wind, and the swarm was swept eastwards from Egypt, said Amir Ayali, who heads Tel Aviv University's zoology department, on Channel 10 TV.
"We can prevent the locusts from destroying our farmlands, but we have to act fast," Ramat Hanegev Regional Council Chairman Shmulik Rifman said.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization warned the Agriculture Ministry already this week that a locust swarm was potentially on the way to infest Israel. A swarm of about 30 million insects descended on Cairo, the organization said. The Agriculture Ministry subsequently announced that the country was on high "locust alert."
Egypt's state-run Middle East News Agency said more than 17,000 locusts were exterminated in an area spanning more than 84,000 acres. No significant economic losses were reported, as the locusts were not mature enough to cause damage and did not remain long in the area to feed. Other affected areas were mostly desert.
"Israel's aerial and ground pest control systems are ready, should we need it," said Miriam Freund, who is the director of the Plant Protection and Inspections Services in the Agriculture Ministry. In preparation for the potential infestation, the ministry established a locust hotline. The number is 03-9681500, and the line will be operational from 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. The ministry has asked the public to remain vigilant in the face of the swarm.
According to official estimates, if 30 million locusts were to overrun Israel, their appetite for crops could cause up to 100 million shekels ($27 million) in agricultural damages. The last time a barrage of locusts settled on Israel, in November 2004, the country suffered substantial damage. Dr. Drury Gniel, head of the social, educational, and communal services administration in Eilat, advised teachers to conduct classes indoors and seal off windows, doors and other openings to classrooms if necessary.
Perhaps the one group to enjoy the locust swarms will be the foreign worker community, especially those hailing from Thailand, Moskowitz explained.
"For them it's like chips," he said. "They're experts in catching them and then frying them up."