Rural Missouri Magazine

Louses & Locusts
In just nine years as Missouri's state entomologist, Charles Valentine Riley taught the world to value bugs

by Anne McEowen

Charles Valentine Riley served as Missouri’s first state entomologist from 1868 to 1877. His theories about the beneficial use of bugs in the service of agriculture revolutionalized the way the world thinks about insects. His nine annual reports to the Missouri Department of Agriculture are formative texts in the field of entomology, but Riley is best known for his role in saving the French wine industry and increasing our understanding of locust infestations. Courtesy of the Charles Valentine Riley Collection. Special Collections, National Agricultural Library

It was a swarm of bugs so large, even Moses would have shuddered. In 1874, billions of locusts munched their way across America’s plains, devouring nearly every stand of vegetation in their path. The moving horde of insects, collectively the size of California, reached the western edge of Missouri. To a nation still recovering from the destruction of the Civil War, all hope seemed lost. One man stood resolute, however, determined to stem the ravenous tide.

Charles Valentine Riley lived in Missouri just nine years, but his work as Missouri’s first state entomologist had international impact and forever changed how man would think about bugs. His compassion for farmers and detailed observations of insects made him a timely prophet with the intent to profit all who toiled in the soil.

Riley’s arrival on Missouri’s agricultural scene could not have come at a better time. From 1868 to 1877, when he served as Missouri’s official bug expert, Riley formulated a new vision for agriculture, one in which man enlisted the aid of beneficial insects and bested enemy bugs through knowledge and understanding. He not only identified the natural weaknesses of America’s locust foe, but also found in Missouri relief for French vintners threatened by a tiny aphid. Wherever locust or louse threatened, Riley applied his knowledge, skill and personality to address the plague and rose to the forefront of the burgeoning field of entomology in the process.

With a passionate nature and striking physical features — complete with handlebar mustache and wavy brown hair — Charles Valentine Riley fit his romantic name. Born outside of London, England, he immigrated to the United States as a teen. After a brief stint in the Union Army during the Civil War, he found his niche writing and drawing insects for local farming publications. His skill noted, he was promoted to editor of The Prairie Farmer, an agricultural publication of wide distribution based in Chicago.

In his 2005 book, “The Botanist and the Vintner: How Wine was Saved for the World,” Christy Campbell recalls efforts to convince the Missouri legislature to appoint a state entomologist. “New York had such a scientific ornament, so did Illinois,” representatives of the State Horticultural Society of Missouri pleaded. “Why should the great agricultural powerhouse of the Mississippi valley not have the same?”

In 1868, Gov. Thomas Fletcher appointed Riley to be Missouri’s first state entomologist, the third such state official in the nation. Only 25 years old at the time, Riley had no formal training as an entomologist. What he had was a keen sense of observation, an avid interest in insects, a talent for drawing, a proven flair for writing and the recommendation of his friend, Benjamin Dann Walsh, the Illinois state entomologist.

It was his forceful and persuasive insistence in the right of his new way of thinking — coupled with an ability to describe in words and illustrations the natural proofs he observed — that gained Riley the title “Father of Economic Entomology.” He passionately believed scientists and farmers working together could manage insects to the profit of all. It was a revolutionary idea in a time that was ripe for a change in man’s views of the natural world. Charles Darwin, with whom Riley corresponded, published his breakthrough book, “On the Origins of Species,” in 1859, just nine years prior to Riley’s appointment.

An 1857 illustration of a butterfly in its pupal, caterpillar and adult stages reveals the attention to detail that earned Charles Valentine Riley his position as Missouri’s first state entomologist. Riley was just 14 when he sketched this drawing. Courtesy of the Charles Valentine Riley Collection. Special Collections, National Agricultural Library

Riley traversed Missouri by train, horse and buggy, studying insects and their effects on crops. In the introduction to his first annual report as Missouri’s entomologist, Riley wrote, “Wherever I have been, from one end of the state to the other, the cordial hand has been extended, and I have found our farmers and fruit-growers thoroughly alive to the importance of the work, for they know full well that they must fight intelligently, their tiny but mighty insect foes, if they wish reward for their labors.”

Indeed, Missouri’s farmers intending for their crops to be a profitable and useful for human and animal consumption were instead being out-eaten by the indigenous insects. In his first report, Riley quotes the president of the state horticultural society, who estimated the annual loss to the state from insect depredations at $60 million. While Riley believed the amount was inflated, he conceded that if even half of the estimate was accurate, it was still an enormous loss and reasonable to expect a large portion of it could be avoided.

Jeffrey Lockwood, in his 2004 New York Times best-seller, “Locust,” summarized the first report of the Missouri state entomologist by stating that Riley “laid out his philosophy of the importance of insects, explained the need for converting losses into dollars and made the argument that farmers could never master the complexity of insect life on their own.”

Riley believed his annual reports to be of critical and timely interest to the state’s farmers, gardeners and horticulturists. He was frustrated that his writings would be buried within the often-delayed annual report of the Department of Agriculture. Perhaps affronted by the government’s lack of adequate recognition and funding for his work, Riley separately published his nine annual reports at his own expense.

Lockwood described Riley’s reports as “far superior in their scientific depth and presentation quality to anything else of the day — and, for that matter, to a great deal of modern technical publications . . .

“The reports combined the terse professionalism of technical writing with the lyrical elegance of Victorian prose, all illustrated with the finest artwork ever to grace such practical pages,” Lockwood wrote. “Indeed, these reports were the birth announcements of modern economic entomology.”

Riley set up his office on, ironically enough, Locust Street in St. Louis, not far from the residence of famed botanist Henry Shaw. Riley would later collaborate with Shaw to save California’s citrus crops from decimation by the cottony-cushion scale. As typical of Riley, his solution for the citrus growers was uniquely accurate, although previously untried. He tracked the offending pest to Australia, identified its natural enemy there and, after careful testing, imported and released into the citrus groves thousands of ladybird beetles.

Lockwood’s “Locust” describes the import of Riley’s solution: “Within months of releasing these voracious predators, Riley knew he had achieved what has been called ‘the greatest entomological success of all time.’ This was the world’s first case of classical biological control (the suppression of an exotic pest by introducing a natural enemy from its homeland), and the method has become one of the most effective and widely used pest management strategies in modern agriculture.”

An 1875 map published in Riley’s seventh annual report to the Missouri General Assembly shows the swath of locust infestation that decimated crops and left land barren across the United States. Courtesy of the Missouri State Historical Society.

The French botanist Jules-Emile Planchon visited Riley in 1871 and discovered the Missouri scientist maintained a collection of living insects to observe. His description of Riley’s office is contained in Campbell’s book. “The state entomologist’s office, housed in an immense building in St. Louis, was equipped with all the latest apparatus . . . The laboratory was lined with glass cages confining a miniature menagerie which allowed [Riley] to observe hour by hour the phases of evolution of the entire insect world.”

Riley’s office was the destination for much mail and packages, many of which contained bugs. Missourians and others sought Riley’s expertise to identify bugs and determine if they were harmful. Perhaps in response to the condition of the bugs he received, and truly a reflection of Riley’s practical sense of humor, his letterhead included a paragraph titled: “Directions for Sending Insects,” which included the statement “Botanists like their specimens pressed as flat as a pancake, but entomologists do not.”

In 1866, two years before coming to Missouri, Riley published a notice in The Prairie Farmer of a “grape-leaf gall louse.” He noted a similarity to this louse and the insects reportedly plaguing French vineyards. Although the small insect did not kill Missouri vines, it was deadly to the French vines and threatened the existence of the famous French wines and the entire economy of rural France.

During the next several years, Riley worked with his French counterpart Planchon, exchanging specimens and data on the grape-leaf gall louse, an aphid also known as “phylloxera.” Riley warned of the possible spread of the insect by transplanting infected root stocks from one vineyard to another.

The French government recognized the need to stop the bug from destroying all the vines in France and offered a 30,000-franc prize for a practical remedy. In doing so, the government unwittingly encouraged overnight “experts” with highly touted, but ineffective, liquid and gaseous remedies. Desperate in their fight against the bug, French vintners spent all on these useless concoctions. Campbell notes the directness of Riley’s response to the effectiveness of the potions available, “Charles Riley got straight to the point: ‘All insecticides are useless.’”

In 1872, Riley published a list of American vines resistant to phylloxera. Isidor Bush, owner of Missouri’s Bushberg vine nursery near Peveley, turned Riley’s list into a full-color catalog, which was translated into several languages. The French version contained an introduction by Planchon, and Missouri roots were shipped to France by the boxcar load.

This illustration of a grasshopper was reproduced from a woodcut created by Charles Valentine Riley. Courtesy of the University of Missouri W.R. Enns Entomology Museum.

For his role in addressing the phylloxera infestation, the French government awarded Riley a medal in 1874. Ironically, the resulting flood of Missouri vines into the French vineyards, while a boon to the state’s agricultural economy, initiated a new disaster for French vintners as the Missouri vine roots carried more phylloxera. By 1875, the louse had invaded nearly all of France’s wine region. Vintners there had begun widespread grafting of their vines onto Missouri root stock, whereby it has been said that Missouri’s vines saved the wine of the world.

That same year, Gov. Silas Woodson proposed the abolition of Missouri’s Office of Entomology. While the salvation of Riley’s job may be attributed to an outcry from the State Horticultural Society, or the many letters written to the governor or the columns that appeared in newspapers, it may be more to the credit of the invasion of the Rocky Mountain locust into the western counties of Missouri.

Although an individual locust was little more than an inch in length, swarms of locusts caused devastation of biblical proportion. The adult locusts traveled from the northwest, eating everything green in their path and laying their eggs by the millions in fields. The hatchlings would eat through any new growth before molting and swarming eastward causing further destruction.

Following the ravages of the Civil War, the federal government made land grants to farmers and homesteaders in Missouri and other states. Just nine years after the war, these neophyte farmers found themselves battling an enemy more powerful and invasive than any that had marched during the war.

Farmers who braved the attacking locust swarms in defense of their fields wound up not only losing their crops but also having their shirts literally eaten off their backs. Hundreds were completely impoverished, and they and their livestock faced starvation. The land in the affected counties was left so barren that it was reported that except for the warmth of the weather, one might have assumed they were observing Missouri in winter.

Riley set to work studying the locust. He collected specimens of locusts from five states, the Indian Territory and Canada, concluding that the swarm was the same migratory species. His seventh annual report to the state legislature, published early in 1875, mapped the extent of the locust swarms from southern Canada to Texas, from the Colorado Rockies to Missouri.

Riley’s illustration of the female form of the Rocky Mountain locust in various poses appeared in his 1874 report to the Missouri General Assembly. Riley’s research greatly expanded the nation’s understanding of the locust infestation and resulted in practical advice for farmers as well as recipes that, in theory at least, provided some relief for starving farmers. Courtesy of the University of Missouri W.R. Enns Entomology Museum.

Praising the outpouring of support that allowed beleaguered farmers to survive the locust infestation, Riley wrote with characteristic Victorian flourish.

“The calamity was national in its character, and the suffering in the ravaged districts would have been great, and death and famine the consequence, had it not been for the sympathy of the whole country and the energetic measures taken to relieve the afflicted people,” he wrote, describing “a sympathy begetting a generosity which proved equal to the occasion, as it did in the case of the great Chicago fire, and which will ever redound to the glory of our free Republic and of our Union.”

Riley’s report contains in almost reverent detail, by description and drawing, each phase of the locust’s life and reproductive stages. He also provided useful information such as the fact that the locusts would not lay their eggs in newly plowed land, nor in wet ground. Riley advised farmers to dig wide trenches around their fields as the locusts did not like to cross streams they could not jump.

Riley’s report included a review of biblical and historical locust plagues of Egypt, Africa, Asia and southern Europe as well as prior locust swarms reported in North America. He observed that on this continent, the swarms were typically contained in the West and only spread east with greater numbers and resulting damage during dry or drought seasons, as they experienced in 1874. Riley predicted in a report delivered to the governor and the Department of Agriculture that the locusts would leave Missouri and take flight back westward in early June.

In May 1875, perhaps in response to the public’s cry for government assistance or perhaps in a keen political move, Gov. Charles Hardin turned to a higher power for relief.

“Whereas, owing to the failure and losses of our crops much suffering has been endured by many . . . and if not abated will eventuate in sore distress and famine; Wherefore be it known that the 3rd day of June proximo is hereby appointed and set apart as a day of fasting and prayer that Almighty God may be invoked to remove from our midst those impending calamities . . . ” the governor proclaimed.

Riley’s prompt response to the governor’s declaration, published in the St. Louis Globe on May 19, voiced his frustration at the government’s lack of action. “Without discussing the question as to the efficacy of prayer in affecting the physical world, no one will for a moment doubt that the supplications of the people will more surely be granted if accompanied by well-directed, energetic work,” he wrote. Riley proposed a statewide monetary collection to aid people in the affected area, and further that a premium be paid for each bushel of young locusts destroyed.

Recognizing that horses and chickens ate the dead locusts and came to no harm, and having read that American Indians collected the locusts to roast and eat them, Riley proposed “entomophagy” — or, simply put, eating the bugs — as a way to reduce the number of locusts while simultaneously feeding the starving populace.

“At the Eads House in Warrensburg, Riley made his point by serving a memorable four-course meal,” recalls “Forgotten Missourians Who Made History,” a 1996 anthology of short biographies by Pebble Publishing. “The menu, which consisted of locust soup, baked locusts, locust cakes, locusts with honey and just plain locusts, apparently pleased his guests.”

Whether in response to divine intervention or just natural forces, shortly after June 3, 1875, in fulfillment of Riley’s prophecy, the locust swarms left Missouri, never to return.

In late 1876, Riley was appointed head of the newly formed U.S. Entomological Commission, which was charged with reporting ways to prevent and guard against recurring locust invasions. In 1878, the swarms of Rocky Mountain locust — a species now extinct — receded and Riley accepted the position as head entomologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Riley resigned from his work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1894 and became the insect curator of the U.S. National Museum. He died in September 1895 from head injuries sustained during a bicycle ride.

Collections from Charles Valentine Riley’s life, including his drawings and prolific writings, can be found in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Special Collections, in the Smithsonian Institution and at the University of Missouri-Columbia where Riley lectured for several years. His nine annual reports to the Missouri legislature are available for review in the reference library of the State Historical Society in Columbia.

McEowen is a freelance writer from Jefferson City and the wife of Rural Missouri Managing Editor Bob McEowen.

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