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Boll Weevils, a Threat to the Throne

In late September, boll weevils appeared in Lowndes, Jenkins and Grady counties. Fewer than 2,500 insects were found in special field traps. Still, many cotton farmers and businessmen are worried. King Cotton just got back on the throne and boll weevils could jeopardize that position.

This insect, well-recognized for its snout, nearly destroyed the cotton industry in Georgia during the 1970s and '80s. Nobody is anxious to let it happen again.

"This is something that's not taken lightly," said Phillip Roberts, a University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences entomologist in Tifton, Ga. "Reinfestations occur nearly every year, and it's a very serious situation every year it happens."

This year's problem is boll weevils have appeared in fields late in the season. Roberts said the adults in the field now are preparing to overwinter. "They're fattening up on the cotton regrowth we're seeing in many fields" he said. "Then they'll essentially hibernate. Next spring, we'll have mature adults ready to reproduce in the field."

Officials with the Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation have been working since the weevils were found to control these insects and protect the 1998 crop. "All the work we're doing now will keep the weevils from damaging next year's cotton," said G.L. Arflin, state coordinator for the foundation.

Farmers pay an annual assessment to the foundation based on the acres of cotton they plant. The foundation uses that money to place traps in the fields to learn if boll weevils have moved back into Georgia.
If they find weevils, they begin intensively trapping and spraying insecticides to kill the insects and keep them from moving into other fields.

Boll weevils complete a generation in about 21 days. But during that time, a female can lay from 100 to 150 eggs. Over just nine weeks, and adult pair can multiply to more than 250,000.

Boll weevils, only one-quarter of an inch long, wield enormous power to get people moving.

Over the last 10 years, Georgia cotton farmers have participated in the Boll Weevil Eradication Program to get rid of this devastating insect. Roberts said elimination is possible only because boll weevils can reproduce only on cotton.

Boll weevils damage cotton in two ways: they feed on the squares and immature bolls and they lay their eggs in bolls.

Roberts said more damage occurs from the adult females laying eggs in the bolls than from feeding damage. "When the egg matures and the grub hatches, it eats the square from the inside out," he said.

As the maturing insect eats the developing boll, it destroys the material that would normally become cotton fibers.

Before the eradication program started in 1987, farmers had to spray insecticides to kill boll weevils and protect their crop. But since weevils don't pose the threat they used to, farmers use less than half the chemicals they did then.

Five years after its start, the BWEF pronounced Georgia "weevil-free. Since then, cotton acreage has blossomed - from less than 200,000 before the program started to 1.5 million acres this year with an estimated cash value of more than $700 million.
"The elimination of the boll weevil wasn't the only reason farmers planted more cotton," Roberts said. "But without it, cotton became more profitable for farmers and acreage went up."

The foundation manages all aspects of the program. They ran the eradication phase and now maintain and monitor the program. If weevils are found, they handle the containment measures to keep the insects from moving into new fields.

The relatively low number of insects found this year didn't cause any economic damage. But Roberts said he and many others, cotton farmers included, aren't willing to let these insects damage next year's crop. "We're very anxious to get this fire put out," he said.

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