So Long, Pink Bollworm

Coordinated work between growers and industry finally snuff out fearsome cotton pest ( Todd Gilligan and Chris Bennett )

After years of work, including control and regulatory measures, pink bollworm has been eliminated from cotton-producing states.

This success lifts a long-standing domestic quarantine for pink bollworm and relieves restrictions on domestic and international trade for U.S. cotton.

“Removing pink bollworm regulations eases the movement of cotton to market both domestically and internationally, because farmers will have fewer restrictions to deal with,” says U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue in a press release. “Cotton growers were critical to this success, banding together to carry out a coordinated, multistate program and shouldering 80% of the program’s cost.”

The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service created pink bollworm regulations in 1955, which were used in 10 states at the height of the program. States included Arizona, Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma and Texas. The states were quarantined for the pest, but by 2003 only Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas remained subject to the regulations.

To eradicate pink bollworm, regulators used findings from USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) research to prevent reproduction.

“One of the hallmarks of this program was the fact that it was an integrated approach,” says Randy Norton, University of Arizona agronomist for cotton. “[We] didn’t rely on one tech, we used sterile moths, Bt cotton, pheromones—it all went into an approach to eradicate that pest; it’s the same approach we need to take with any pest.”

This type of integrated approach is life-changing for cotton producers, Norton adds. In addition to reducing crop damage it also means fewer pesticide applications will be used in the future, which means beneficial insects can thrive yet again.

“The pink bollworm, a destructive insect pest of cotton that once required multiple insecticide applications while continuing to reduce yields, is no longer present in U.S. cotton production,” says Gary Adams, National Cotton Council president and CEO in a recent press release. “The benefits of this program are shared by society, the environment and the united producer membership who led this battle to victory.”

He adds it’s important to remember what enabled the victory to prevent future problems.

“We can’t become complacent,” Norton says. “Watch for other pests and fusarium race 4; be aware and don’t become complacent. But do recognize eradication of this pest has been transformational.” 

Eradication Marks A Milestone

While pink bollworm doesn’t represent a financial threat today, it cost U.S. cotton producers more than $32 million annually as recently as 2009, according to the National Cotton Council. Pink bollworm was first discovered near Hearne, Texas, in 1917. Experts suggest it migrated naturally from Mexico or through infested shipments, according to the Texas Invasive Species Institute. Pink bollworm eventually spread throughout all major cotton-producing regions. Larry Antilla, former director of the Arizona Cotton Research and Protection Council, says between the 1960s and the 1990s, growers in parts of Arizona and southern California often lost up to one-half bale per acre to the pest if they didn’t practice pink bollworm control measures. Dedicated control measures across a number of states led to this year’s eradication success story.