July 01, 2007

The Bug that Brought Russia to its Knees

Growing up in Denver, I never had much of an opportunity to develop a green thumb. Now, living in a remote village in western Russia, I have found that tending a garden is a necessity. There are no stores in our village, and the closest market is nearly 40 miles away, down a treacherous road. Yet I could not have imagined that I would spend a good part of my summers bent over potato plants, squashing little orange larvae and their black-and-white striped parents until my thumbs were stained not green but bright orange. 

Many Russians believe that this pest, known as the Colorado potato beetle, was sent here by the Americans after World War II to devastate the all-important potato crop and bring Russia to its knees. As an American from Colorado, I am held personally responsible by my neighbors for the damage the beetle causes in our village.

Until recently, the Colorado potato beetle, oval in shape and about half the size of my thumbnail, was only known in Russia to a few well-traveled entomologists. Today, however, even politicians are not cursed as often as the little striped beetle, which wreaks more havoc in rural Russia than economic crises and political reforms combined. The tiny creatures rob every Russian family of their main dietary staple – the potato. Armies of the invaders march out of the soil for the short growing season, occupying potato fields and summer plots from Ukraine to Siberia. The potato beetle eats the leaves and even the stems of the potato plant, resulting in poorer productivity, smaller potatoes, and lower amounts of starch and protein. Left unchecked, the beetles kill the plants altogether. Each year, the seemingly innocuous potato beetle destroys as much as 40% of Russia’s potato harvest. It is possible that in the history of civilization, never has a nation seen such large-scale devastation by one insect.

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See Also

More on the Beetle

More on the Beetle

More than you probably would ever want to know about the beetle, unless you farm potatoes...

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