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In 1892, near Brownsville, Texas, a small beetle, identified by local agricultural authorities as the Boll Weevil, or Anthonomus grandis, made its first appearance in the United States. For the next century, the tiny insect would radically alter the South’s agricultural economy by attacking the region’s major crop cotton. Many believe that the weevil was one of the most important agents of social change in the South, second only to the Civil War. The beetle’s destructive wrath, coupled with a backwards agricultural system known as sharecropping, impoverished the southern states and prompted Franklin D. Roosevelt during the 1930s to label the South as the “nation’s number one economic problem.”
Although the boll weevil is indigenous to Mexico and Central America, it is an invasive species in the United States. At the time of its arrival, most of the South’s agricultural lands were cultivated in cotton. Over the next 30 years, the ravenous beetle migrated eastward. By 1915, it was bearing down on Georgia. At the time of the beetle’s entry into Georgia, approximately 5.2 million acres of the state’s land was cultivated in cotton. The weevil’s impact on the state could be observed eight years later when it was reported that only 2.6 million acres were devoted to cotton. The decline in cultivated acreage corresponded with a drastic reduction in yield. In 1914, for example, Georgia produced 2.8 million bales of cotton. By 1923, these numbers had been reduced to 600,000 bales, primarily due to the weevil. The story was the same across the Cotton Belt. In 1907, Mississippi produced 191,790 bales of cotton. Within only five years of the weevil’s arrival, Mississippi farmers could barely generate 30,000 bales. During the height of the Great Depression in the 1930s, the South’s estimates of damage due to the insect exceeded $200,000 annually. In 1950, the Cotton Belt set a historical record with losses topping over $750 million. By the end of the 20th century, the weevil had cost the region’s cotton farmers an estimated $22 billion in losses and control efforts.
In order to survive, the boll weevil must have access to cotton. Adult weevils impact young cotton bolls (or squares) by feeding upon them and using them as a place to deposit their eggs. Actually, the damage done by feeding is minimal. It is the larval stage of the insect that is most devastating to cotton. Male weevils, after locating a cotton field, release a special pheromone to attract females. Thus, the presence of cotton is necessary to ensure the insect’s propagation. Upon mating, females seek out a cotton boll in which to deposit an egg. Meanwhile, both males and females use their long snout to puncture the bolls and feed.
After mating, the female lays an egg (usually one per boll) in an abandoned feeding tube and covers it with a dark, sticky substance known as frass. Within the week, the egg hatches and a small, legless larva, or grub, emerges. For the next few days, the larva consumes the boll’s internal tissues, after which it enters a pupation stage that lasts for about a week. At the end of the pupation period, an adult weevil emerges from the boll and immediately begins to seek out cotton and a mate.
The damaged boll yellows, withers, and drops. The entire life cycle (egg, larva, pupa, and adult) requires around three weeks to complete. A typical season may produce as many as eight to ten generations of weevils. To ensure the survival of the species, adult weevils over-winter in or adjacent to cotton fields, only to reemerge in the spring.
For most of the 20th century, the fight against the boll weevil produced only limited results. The struggle compelled many farmers to give up cotton and pursue other cash crops, like peanuts, tobacco, and vegetables. During the 1970s, however, scientists discovered ways to attack the insect through its own biology by developing pheromone lures and detection traps. The use of chemicals, particularly Malathion, has also been effective. Cultural practices, too, like the destruction of cotton stalks after harvest to deprive weevils of a winter habitat, have also been successful.
Winning the Battle
Today, cotton-producing states participate in the Boll Weevil Eradication Program (BWEP), which was first tried in North Carolina during the late 1970s. Basically, BWEP applies a three-pronged approach to weevil eradication: the spraying of Malathion, the use of pheromone lures and traps, and the destruction of cotton stalks. The early successes with the program prompted other states to participate. BWEP has had enormous success in eliminating the weevil from several states and some, like Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and North Carolina have declared themselves free of the insect. BWEP also boasts an environmental benefit. With the eradication of the weevil, the need for insecticides is greatly reduced, allowing farmers to rely more heavily on beneficial insects to control cotton pests.
- P.B. Haney, W.J. Lewis, and W.R. Lambert, “Cotton Production and the Boll Weevil in Georgia: History, Cost of Control, and Benefits of Eradication,” Georgia Agricultural Experiment Station, Research Bulletin (No. 428, November, 1996);
- Kim Kaplan, “We Don’t Cotton to Boll Weevil ‘Round Here Anymore,” Agricultural Research (February 2003);
- John Leland, Aliens in the Backyard: Plant and Animal Imports into America (University of South Carolina Press, 2005);
- Phillip Roberts, “Boll Weevil,” The New Georgia Encyclopedia (Georgia Humanities Council, 2004-2006);
- S. Department of Agriculture, “Boll Weevil Eradication,” Aphis Factsheet, November 2001.