Bugs Back In The Day: Fiends In The Field

carroll smith
Carroll Smith

Some memories, along with photographs I have seen from the past, are as horrifying as a clip from the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock movie “The Birds.” But instead of birds, I’m talking about bugs. More specifically, relentless cotton insects.

A book titled “The Boll Weevil: How To Prosper in Boll Weevil Territory,” authored by G. H. Alford in 1916, contains a black and white photo of a field of late cotton. The caption is: “The late cotton is for weevil — not for the farmer. The boll weevil prevented the above late cotton from making a single boll.” Another photo shows multiple weevils attacking a cotton boll.

The crater-like holes are hard to look at.

A colorful stock photo found on Google Images shows a garish, fluorescent yellow-green pheromone trap literally covered with boll weevils from top to bottom and even down the stake holding it firmly in the turnrow next to a cotton field.

This small, grayish-brown insect ate its way across the South for decades before being declared eradicated in 2009. It was even immortalized in songs by numerous musicians through the years. Although he was an infamous celebrity portrayed as “looking for a home,” the boll weevil was never a welcome visitor in cotton country.

Another horror story involved the beet armyworm infestation in Alabama in 1988. Auburn University entomologist Ron Smith reported that the period from “April through June 1988 was the driest on record in Alabama. The first outbreaks of beet armyworms were in fields of sandy soils where the plants were showing the greatest moisture stress.”

Although the infestation let up slightly in early July, another batch of eggs was laid about mid-month. To add insult to injury, there were no effective insecticides to control the pest. Smith says, “It was during this period (July 12-30) that population levels of over 25 caterpillars per row foot went uncontrolled through their larval cycle in many fields, causing damage to 100 percent of the squares and blooms.”

Anecdotal accounts spread like wildfire through coffee shops describing millions of worms marching across the highway and getting smushed under vehicle tires while trying to get from one cotton field to the next.

Insects can still wreak havoc on today’s cotton fields, but our insecticide and trait toolbox is much heftier than those farmers once had access to. Manage them carefully and make timely applications to avoid a re-run of past disasters created by Mother Nature’s malicious minions.

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