Agricultural publication G04255---New April 15, 1995
The Boll Weevil in Missouri: History, Biology and Management
Clyde E. Sorenson
MU Delta Center, University of Missouri-Columbia
The cotton boll weevil, Anthonomus grandis grandis, is the most important
pest of cotton in much of America's Cotton Belt. Its importance is due not
only to the considerable damage it does but also to its disruption of
management programs that target other pests.
High numbers of boll weevils can cause you to apply insecticide repeatedly
during the growing season because the boll weevil goes through several
overlapping generations during every crop season, reproduces quickly, moves
often and can be controlled with insecticides only during its adult stage.
Applying insecticides can reduce populations of organisms that regulate the
populations of other cotton pests, such as aphids, plant bugs and the
bollworm complex. The presence of significant boll weevil populations
dictates, to some extent, the management of other pests.
History and distribution
The boll weevil is not native to the United States. It originated in Mexico
and Central America where it fed on native tree cottons. It probably
adapted to domesticated cottons in Central America in pre-Columbian times.
It was first detected in the United States in Texas, about 1892. The boll
weevil spread across the Cotton Belt at an average rate of about 60 miles a
year and made it to the Carolinas by 1922. It was first detected in
Missouri about 1913.
Today, you can find the boll weevil in the mid-South cotton-production
region, which is Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi and Tennessee,
and in Texas, New Mexico and parts of Alabama. States successfully
eradicating the boll weevil are North Carolina, South Carolina, California,
Florida, Georgia and parts of Alabama. Another subspecies of the boll
weevil is found in Arizona, but it feeds predominantly on a wild relative
The boll weevil is found throughout the Missouri cotton-production region,
and cotton is the only host of the boll weevil in the state. It appears to
be most abundant along Crowley's Ridge, a north-south ridge extending from
the Ozarks south into Arkansas, and in areas near major waterways (see
Figure 1). Researchers are trying to definitively establish the
distribution in the state.
Figure 1. Distribution of boll weevils in southern Missouri, spring 1994.
The insect's life cycle
The boll weevil, like all beetles, undergoes complete metamorphosis. Female
boll weevils deposit eggs in cotton flower buds, called squares, and in
small bolls. Each female may produce as many as 200 eggs during her life
span. The female seals the oviposition hole with frass, or droppings,
leaving a characteristic brown, raised area at the site. The bracts of
infested squares usually yellow, flare and the squares drop from the plant.
Infested bolls may or may not drop.
Larvae hatching from the eggs feed on the square or boll tissue for
approximately seven days to 14 days (depending on temperature) and then
pupate. The pupal stage lasts about five days, after which the new adult
emerges. Newly emerged adults feed on squares, pollen or bolls. Females
begin laying eggs three days to five days after they emerge. Generation
time from egg to egg averages about 18 days to 21 days, although it can be
shorter or longer depending on environmental conditions. Figure 2
illustrates the life cycle of the boll weevil.
Figure 2. The life cycle of the boll weevil.
Toward the end of summer, as cotton plants mature and days grow shorter,
most emerging adult weevils enter a pre-diapause state. Diapause is a
resting state comparable to hibernation that adult boll weevils enter to
survive winter. Pre-diapause boll weevils typically don't mate but instead
spend a great deal of time feeding to build up fat reserves for the winter.
During this phase of the annual cycle, boll weevils travel great distances.
Individual insects may move more than 30 miles in search of remaining food
or wintering habitat.
Diapausing boll weevils generally spend the winter in leaf litter in wooded
areas near cotton fields. However, a few overwinter in fence rows, grass
banks and other sites. Survival is highest in hardwood litter sites. The
boll weevils remain in these overwintering sites until warming
temperatures, lengthening days and perhaps moisture trigger the break of
Abundance from year to year varies dramatically because of fluctuations in
the severity of winters. Spring-emerging boll weevils search for the
nearest cotton field and search for squares there. Those emerging before
squares are available may feed on the terminal buds of cotton plants or on
the pollen of flowering plants around the field. The boll weevil, however,
must have cotton pollen available to successfully mate.
Once males feed on squares, they produce a pheromone, released in their
frass, that is attractive to both females and males. Females are attracted
because pheromone identifies not only an oviposition resource but a food
source as well. Females know that males can't produce the pheromone until
they find squares. Males are attracted to the pheromone because it
identifies food and possible mates. Once females respond to the pheromone,
the insects mate, and the annual cycle starts again. The insects may
produce three generations to five generations a year in southeastern
Over the course of a year, many factors contribute to boll weevil
mortality. These factors include predation, parasitism, disease, weather
Predation is a relatively minor component in boll weevil population
dynamics compared with other insect pests. Because most of the life cycle
is spent inside the square, weevils tend to be safe from predators.
However, studies have shown that some ants, especially fire ants, are
effective predators of boll weevils. A number of insects, spiders, birds
and other animals eat adult boll weevils, but these predators only have a
minor effect on infestations.
Parasites also have little effect on boll weevil populations. Several
native parasitic wasps do attack weevil larvae but rarely in numbers high
enough to reduce populations. An exotic parasitic wasp, Catolaccus
grandis, is effective, but it cannot overwinter at these latitudes. It may be useful
in release programs, though.
Disease organisms do kill some boll weevils, but again, normally not at
levels that will control infestations.
Suicidal emergence can be a significant factor. In some years, many boll
weevils come out of diapause long before cotton squares are available.
Because most (but not all) emerging weevils will live for only about two
weeks without cotton pollen, most of these early emergers die without
Weather is probably the most important cause of boll weevil death in
Missouri (and much of the rest of the Cotton Belt). Because the boll weevil
is a tropical insect that traveled north, it is not well-adapted to the
climate of much of the United States. Boll weevils start to die at about 23
degrees F; the percentage that dies increases as the temperature drops.
Research we've conducted shows that most boll weevils don't survive after
an hour at 5 degrees F. Because overwintering boll weevils are insulated by
leaf litter, air temperatures usually have to drop lower than the values
mentioned above. Snow or ice cover also insulate effectively and protect
boll weevils from lethal temperatures.
In most years in Missouri, less than 10 percent of the boll weevils that
enter wintering habitat survive to spring. A series of severe winters in
the late 1970s virtually eradicated the weevil in Missouri; populations did
not recover until the late 1980s. High heat, drought and cultivation may
kill some larvae during the growing season. The impact of these factors has
not been measured in the mid-South growing region.
The boll weevil's damage
Most damage to cotton by the boll weevil is caused by females laying eggs
and larvae feeding. In heavy infestations, nearly every square receives an
egg as soon as it is large enough to support the development of a larva
(when squares are roughly the size of a pencil eraser); under these
conditions, virtually no fruit may be set. The potential for damage is
greater because of the boll weevil's short generation time. Two or more
generations may occur during viable fruit set. You could lose more than 50
percent of your crop to boll weevils; complete crop failures have occurred.
Squares and small bolls fed on by adult boll weevils typically drop from
the plant. Larger bolls may not drop but may be more susceptible to
invasion by boll-rot organisms.
Adults feed on terminals of seedling cotton before squares are available.
In rare instances, this feeding causes enough injury to reduce stand or
retard plant growth.
Winter is probably the most effective killer of boll weevils each year in
Missouri. Unfortunately, you can't modify the weather or wintering habitat
in this area. However, you can manage boll weevil populations through a
combination of cultural and chemical control strategies.
An important tool for boll weevil management is the pheromone trap. This
trap uses a synthetic version of the pheromone produced by male boll
weevils to attract weevils of both sexes. These traps give good information
on the activity and the number of weevils in a cotton field.
Cultural control: Cultivation destroys some of the larvae in squares that
have fallen off the plant, but other practices are more useful. Managing a
crop for earliness establishes much of the fruit before boll weevil numbers
rise, and it reduces the time the crop is vulnerable to the insect. Early
planting (as soil temperatures allow), early maturing varieties, fertility
management to prevent lush, late-season growth, using growth regulators
such as Pix (mepiquat chloride) and other earliness practices help reduce
boll weevil impact.
In some years, a substantial number of weevils can develop in a field after
harvest, particularly if harvest was early and regrowth occurs. Destroy
crop residues as soon as possible after harvest to reduce overwintering
populations. Mowing with a flail or rotary mower is preferable to disking
or otherwise trying to bury the residue. To be effective, destroy residue
on an area-wide basis. If only a few growers leave residue standing through
the fall, enough boll weevils can be produced to infest neighboring
growers' acreage the following spring.
Chemical control: You can use three types of insecticide applications
during the cotton-growing season to reduce boll weevil populations. The
first two types reduce populations during the growing season; the third
reduces populations going into wintering habitat.
The first kind of boll weevil insecticide treatment frequently is called a
"pin-head square" application. Time the application to coincide with the
appearance of the first squares, when they are about the size of a kitchen
matchhead. A well-timed pin-head square application can greatly reduce the
number of boll weevil colonizers in a field and may eliminate the need for
more insecticide treatments later in the season. Pin-head applications are,
therefore, the most important chemical "tools" available for boll weevil
management. Base your decision to make a pin-head application on
pheromone-trap captures. Place pheromone traps when plants emerge at a rate
of one trap per 10 acres to 20 acres. You should treat your crop if, during
a two-week period prior to the appearance of the first square, you capture
one weevil to two weevils in each trap each week.
The second type of boll weevil insecticide application is an "in-season,"
threshold-based treatment. These are directed at populations that have
exceeded the economic threshold and that will cause economic loss if left
Missouri's threshold is 10 percent to 15 percent squares with boll weevil
punctures. Examine a minimum of 100 randomly selected squares before you
decide whether to treat. Begin scouting when the first squares are
one-third grown (about the size of a pencil eraser), and continue weekly
until cutout (when square production drops off). You may need to repeat
in-season treatments at four-day to five-day intervals until the population
is reduced. Late in the season (during and after cutout), raise the
threshold to reflect the increasing scarcity of squares. At this time the
threshold should be between 20 percent to 30 percent punctured squares, and
you should examine small bolls for signs of adult feeding and egg laying.
The third type of insecticide treatment option to use against boll weevils
is the "diapause-control" spray. Its goal is to reduce the number of boll
weevils entering wintering habitat. If you want the diapause-control
treatment to be effective, make it part of an area-wide program.
Diapause-control sprays are applied to cotton fields after the crop is made
but before boll weevils move to wintering habitat (in Missouri this would
be about the beginning of September). You may spray several times prior to
harvest at 10-day to 14-day intervals. Discontinue when the crop residue is
destroyed or killing frost occurs. The need for diapause treatments is
based on damage rates in the field and pheromone trap captures.
You can find recommended insecticides in MU publication M00146, Handbook
for the Management of Insects and Plant Diseases, or at your local
University Extension center.
Eradicating the boll weevil
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), in cooperation with state
governments and grower organizations, is coordinating a nationwide effort
to eradicate the boll weevil from U.S. cotton-production regions. The
program uses intensive pheromone trapping, pin-head applications based on
pheromone trapping, in-season insecticide applications when needed and
intensive diapause-control programs to reduce populations to far below
As of 1994, boll weevils had been eradicated from North Carolina, South
Carolina, Georgia, Florida, California, Arizona and parts of Alabama.
Active programs are underway in Alabama, Texas and parts of Tennessee and
Mississippi. In North Carolina, where the boll weevil has been eradicated
the longest, cotton acreages have increased from fewer than 100,000 acres
to more than 450,000 acres. Insecticide applications have been reduced by
approximately 50 percent. In Georgia, insecticide applications have been
cut from 10 to 12 per season to about four per season, and acreage has
grown from fewer than 200,000 acres to almost 1,000,000 acres.
A regional plan exists for eradicating the boll weevil from the mid-South
growing region. Current plans call for an eradication program to begin in
the Missouri production region in 1999-2000, at the same time as in
northwestern Tennessee and northeastern Arkansas. This three-state area
would be the last to come into the mid-South regional program. The
rationale for this late entry is that waiting may allow for a severe
winter, which could reduce populations naturally.
Grower participation is mandatory if a program is established in an area.
The decision to initiate the program is made by a vote of cotton growers in
the proposed program area. State legislation is required to enable the
Costs of the programs have been shared; growers pay for 70 percent of the
program, and the government picks up 30 percent. Eradication programs
usually last at least three years; future programs will be five years long.
The highest costs come during the first two years, but the payment
structure usually is designed so that costs are spread out. Total costs
have ranged from approximately $50 to $150 an acre. The range in costs is
due to varying levels of boll weevil pressure in program regions and the
timing of program initiation. We can expect costs in any program undertaken
in Missouri to be lower than these rates because of relatively low boll
weevil numbers and the concentration of cotton acreage in a relatively
small area of the state.
To order, request G04255, The Boll Weevil in Missouri: History, Biology and
Management (50 cents).
* Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension Work Acts of May 8 and
June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the United States Department of
Agriculture. Ronald J. Turner, Director, Cooperative Extension Service,
University of Missouri and Lincoln University, Columbia, Missouri 65211. *
University Extension does not discriminate on the basis of race, color,
national origin, sex, religion, age, disability or status as a Vietnam era
veteran in employment or programs. * If you have special needs as addressed
by the Americans with Disabilities Act and need this publication in an
alternative format, write ADA Officer, Extension and Agricultural
Information, 1-98 Agriculture Building, Columbia, MO 65211, or call (573)
882-8237. Reasonable efforts will be made to accommodate your special
The Missouri Agricultural Experiment Station is the research arm of the
College of Agriculture, Food and Natural
at the University of Missouri-Columbia
Site maintained by people at AgEBB