Friday, December 9, 2022

Hone Your Bollworm Scouting Skills

• By Dominic Reisig,
North Carolina State University •

bollworm larvae
When scouting a cotton field for bollworm larvae, cover all major areas in the field — photos courtesy North Carolina State University

Bollworm, also called corn earworm and soybean podworm, can be a significant square- and boll-damaging pest in North Carolina cotton, especially following foliar insecticide sprays for other insects. This species emerges from the soil as a moth in early to mid-May and completes at least two generations, primarily in wild hosts and field corn, before flying to blooming cotton and soybeans.

Cotton lines that have been genetically altered to express a toxin of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) have been available to North Carolina producers since 1996. These lines are also referred to as Bollgard II, Bollgard 3, TwinLink, TwinLink Plus, WideStrike and WideStrike 3 varieties. Some express up to three Bt toxins. Other than caterpillars, Bt varieties will not control other insect pests, such as thrips, cotton aphids, plant bug and stink bugs.

Also, different caterpillar pests are not controlled to the same degree. For example, tobacco budworms attempting to feed on Bt varieties have shown zero survival in the field. Other caterpillar pests, such as beet and fall armyworms and cabbage and soybean loopers that may be present at low levels, are no longer economic pests.

In contrast, bollworms can become established, especially if a prior “disruptive” spray has been used that reduces or eliminates beneficial arthropods. Finally, only limited control of cutworms is provided by the Bt toxins, in part because cutworms are often partially to fully grown when cotton seedlings are available in the spring.

Adult Moth Activity

Since 2016, bollworm resistance has been widespread in Bollgard II, TwinLink and WideStrike varieties but not in Bollgard 3, TwinLink Plus and WideStrike 3 lines. As a result, scouting and control recommendations vary.

adult bollwormm moth
All cotton varieties should be scouted regularly when any adult moth activity is detected, but especially during major flights.

All varieties should be scouted regularly when any sort of adult moth activity is detected but especially during major flights. These usually occur in mid-July (southern counties) to late July or early August (northern counties) but can be determined using the North Carolina State University Extension Light Trap Data network.

A good indication of when the major flight begins can be confirmed by a significant increase in light or pheromone trap captures or the presence of freshly emerged bollworm moths in the field or around field edges. Regular, systematic scouting is essential since plant compensation for boll damage at this time of year is minimal, and caterpillar feeding, especially on bolls, can dramatically reduce yields.

For Bollgard II, TwinLink and WideStrike varieties, thresholds should be triggered based on the presence of eggs before neonate (recently hatched) bollworms are present. There is no visual way to distinguish bollworm and tobacco budworm eggs so scouts should pay close attention to the species of moths present in the field. Tobacco budworms usually infest fields a little earlier than bollworm.

For Bollgard 3, TwinLink Plus and WideStrike 3 varieties, the presence of eggs or first-stage bollworms can be used as an indication of potential pressure to help gauge scouting frequency. Neonate (recently hatched) bollworms must feed on the cotton plant before they ingest a lethal amount of the Bt toxin, so these should never be used as a trigger point to spray.

Scouts should direct their attention to detecting and recording square damage, damage to small bolls or second-stage bollworms. It is essential to recognize the difference between first (neonate) and second bollworm stages. Second stage bollworms will be greater than 1/8-inch in length.

Be sure to identify the difference between insignificant, superficial square damage and damage that will cause the square to abort. Scouting only large bolls or large-sized bollworms can lead to significant yield losses if these populations exceed threshold and are not sprayed.

Bollworm Larvae

When scouting a cotton field for bollworm larvae, cover all major areas in the field. When looking for eggs, begin with 25 to 100 randomly selected leaves or fruiting structures. It’s important not to neglect scouting leaves in the canopy where blooms are present. Bollworm moths lay eggs within the canopy, following blooms up the plant during the season.

For larvae, inspect 100 randomly selected squares and 100 bolls from throughout the field (more detail in following paragraph). Pay particular attention to bollworm larvae associated with blooms and bloom tags. Bollworm larvae that become established on Bt cotton are often associated with pink blooms and bloom tags. Remember to sample these fruiting forms in proportion to their occurrence in the overall boll population.

If a higher proportion of pink blooms and bloom tags is sampled, bollworm thresholds must be raised accordingly. Bloom tags should not be oversampled either, since bollworm larvae are thought to survive because they can avoid some of the Bt toxins produced by the plant. Likewise, do not sample obviously damaged or flared squares.

Again, boll sampling for larvae should consist of bloom tags, small bolls and large bolls in the proportion that they occur in the field. It may be easier to keep track of this ratio by sampling and retaining 10 squares and 10 bolls while walking, then stopping within the field to evaluate the fruit. Repeat this process 10 times for a total of 100 squares and 100 bolls.

A cloth nail pouch with two sides (one side for squares and the other for bolls) makes a handy container for carrying possible damaged fruit (some damage is obvious, and some may require a closer inspection at your stop). Nail pouches are available at most hardware stores.

Scouting Timeline

Once-a-week scouting leading up to the major bollworm moth flight is usually adequate. At this point, scouting should be done weekly, or more often in a smaller subsample of fields. Scouting frequency should be adjusted according to the moth pressure, the susceptibility of the crop, the variety (and associated Bt toxins produced), environmental conditions and the damage risk the producer is willing to take.

Given the varietal, planting date, soil and fertility differences among fields, both the attractiveness and susceptibility of a field to insects and the period during which the field remains vulnerable to late-season insects may vary greatly. Generally, late-planted, lush, rank fields are more attractive and vulnerable to late-season insect damage and may require a more extended period of scouting and protection.

A few squares and blooms will sometimes remain in the terminals, even when cotton has “cut out” and is no longer susceptible to bollworms. When lateral squares and blooms have become difficult to find, scouting for bollworms can be stopped.

Likewise, when cotton plants have an average of three nodes or fewer remaining above the uppermost first position white bloom, they are normally impervious to bollworm and stink bug damage. The same is true when the upper bolls that will be harvested have become difficult to cut with a pocketknife (about three to four weeks after bloom).

Spot scouting for late bollworms may continue through early to mid-September in fields of late-maturing cotton or in green areas if they make up a significant portion of the field. Bollworm (and other late-season insects) thresholds should be raised as the boll population matures through the season.

Try to preserve beneficial insect levels prior to bollworm infestations by scouting and treating for pests only when needed and by using more selective insecticides. Higher beneficial insect numbers may lead to more effective aphid and other insect pest suppression — including bollworm — but only if insecticides are used minimally.


Dr. Dominic Reisig is a professor and Extension specialist in entomology and plant pathology at North Carolina State University. Dr. Anders Huseth, NCSU, also contributed to this article.

Bollworm Thresholds

Bollgard II, TwinLink, WideStrike:
■ 25 total eggs on 100 leaves or fruiting structures (search throughout the canopy on multiple plants).

Bollgard 3, TwinLink Plus, WideStrike 3:
■ 4% damaged bolls.

■ Three live second-stage bollworms (1/8 inch or longer) per 100 fruit (pay particular attention to bollworms in or under yellow, pink, or dried blooms stuck to young bolls) or

■ Two second-stage bollworms on two consecutive scouting trips or

■ One second-stage bollworm on three consecutive scouting trips.

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