EILAT, Israel – Swarms of locusts devoured lawns and palm trees Sunday in southern Israel, panicking farmers and leaving others worried about biblical plagues.
The pests swept up from Egypt, working their way north on a path that could take them to the West Bank town of Jericho, where Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) was slated to meet Palestinian officials Monday.
The red locusts originated in West Africa and traveled over Libya and Egypt. The insects are present every year in Africa, but this year's swarms are especially large due to prolonged periods of heavy rainfall, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (search).
Israel's Agriculture Ministry had not by Sunday reported serious damage to crops in the arid Arava and Negev (search) deserts. Ministry planes were spraying onion, pepper and melon fields near Israel's southern borders with Egypt and Jordan.
Officials in the Red Sea resort of Eilat (search) said many of the plants and trees in city parks had been stripped of their foliage by the pests. The locusts seemed to prefer palm and olive trees, basil, grape leaves and grass.
"If these pests land on my fields, it's all over," potato farmer Menachem Tzafrir told the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. "They destroy a whole year's work in a matter of minutes."
Eilat residents on Sunday found their lawns blanketed in red with the insects. Some children questioned their parents if darkness, the ninth biblical plague after locusts, was soon to come.
According to the Book of Exodus (search) in the Old Testament, the Egyptians suffered 10 plagues before Pharoah agreed to let the enslaved Israelites free. Locusts were the eighth plague.
"A Plague of Locusts," read the top headlines in Yediot and the Maariv daily news papers on Sunday. Both reported on the delight of Thai workers on southern farms, who consider the insects a delicacy.
Yediot included instructions for the culinary curious on how to grill the locusts "turning them over, until they yellow."
Rabbi David Batzri, a leading kabbalist — or Jewish mystic — blamed the locusts on poverty and urged Israelis to give to the poor to help expel the pests.
Agriculture Ministry officials said they were concerned that warm weather on Sunday could prompt the locusts to begin breeding. This would cause greater damage, since young locusts have large appetites, the officials told Yediot. But rain and colder weather was expected throughout the country on Monday.
The insects, which normally live between two and six months, eat their weight — about 0.07 ounces — in crops every day. They can travel 120 miles a day.