Boll weevils near extinction in Mississippi

Published 2:40 pm Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A small insect pest that drove many Mississippi cotton farmers to the brink of despair a few years ago now finds its days numbered.

Boll weevils could be counted in the thousands per acre in Mississippi but eradication has significantly reduced that number.

For most of the summer, the state’s trap network found only one boll weevil, which was in Tunica County on June 11. Officials found two more weevils in mid-October from traps in Chickasaw County.

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“The weevil found in Tunica County was on Highway 61 by the turn to the casinos. The weevil gambled and lost,” said Jeannine Smith, executive director of the Mississippi Boll Weevil Management Corp.

While it is easy to laugh about the Tunica boll weevil and the circumstances in which it was found, the insect has never been a joke in Mississippi.

Boll weevils entered the U.S. from Mexico, and they were first seen in Mississippi on Sept. 20, 1907. By 1915, they covered the entire state, and by 1920 they migrated to the East Coast. The boll weevil covered 600,000 square miles in 30 years.

David Bennett and his father have grown cotton in Benton County for 60 years. He remembers when boll weevils were plentiful.

“They’ve been bad from the time I started farming until boll weevil eradication took over,” Bennett said. “We’d run the high sprayer seven days a week just trying to keep up, and we never did get rid of them.”

Bennett said they would spend $20 to $50 an acre spraying for the weevils.

Farmers had to carefully keep track of the weevil’s life cycle so they would know when to spray to keep the pests somewhat in check, he said.

“You could keep them from wiping you out, but you never could get rid of them,” Bennett said. “It wasn’t anything to walk out in a field and see 10 to 12 on a single bloom.”

Bennett said he doesn’t think he could ever put a price tag on how much he and his father lost to boll weevils.

Researchers estimate the boll weevil has cost U.S. cotton producers $13 billion since its arrival.

In 1960, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Boll Weevil Research Laboratory was established at Mississippi State University to develop trapping, suppression and reproduction control techniques for this insect.

In 1977, a successful pilot boll weevil eradication project was conducted in South Mississippi, and it led the way for a full eradication program that began in North and South Carolina in 1983. The national eradication program moved from east to west, and states and regions could enter the program only after efforts were successful east of them.

When boll weevil eradication began in the Magnolia State, the Mississippi Boll Weevil Management Corp. divided the state into five regions.

When eradication efforts began, farmers were assessed as much as $24 per acre for program expenses. As a region’s boll weevil numbers decreased, the annual per-acre fee assessment was lowered. In 2008, the highest assessment paid was $6.50 an acre in Region 3.

Darrin Dodds, cotton specialist with the MSU’s Extension Service, said after just a few years of battles, boll weevils are no longer an issue in cotton farming.

“Mississippi State had to name entomologist Richard Brown as the state boll weevil identifier because soon there will be cotton farmers who have never seen a boll weevil and wont even know what one looks like,” Dodds said.