It has taken 111 years, but the cotton industry is finally beginning to believe it can rid agriculture of the boll weevil.
In the century since the small pests entered the United States by traveling over the Rio Grande from Mexico, boll weevils have cost cotton producers more than $45 billion. Moving about 60 miles per year, the boll weevil made it all the way from its introduction in Texas in 1893 to Virginia by 1922.
The boll weevil's migration into the United States set into motion a great deal of activity that changed the face of history, says entomologist Jim Smith, who serves as director of the Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville, Miss. “The weevil spread quickly, and researchers violently disagreed about what to do about it during the first few years after it was identified,” he says.
Smith says, “The boll weevil decimated the cotton industry throughout much of the Mid-South and Texas, and many cotton producers moved to the Mississippi Delta. Cotton growers believed the Delta could produce cotton yields high enough to share their crop with the boll weevil, and because the Mississippi Delta was a less desirable overwintering site for weevils.”
During those first years of battling the cotton-devouring pest, Texans were paid to capture boll weevils in cotton fields, and rewards were offered to anyone who could invent a new technology able to insure eradication of the boll weevil. In addition to triggering the birth of the science of entomology in the South, the boll weevil became famous with cigars and songs named after it, and it played a role in the birth of the Delta blues.
At the same time, land was donated for a research complex in Stoneville, Miss., which then began developing pesticides and application machines to fight the pest. “The entomology complex we have in Mississippi really wouldn't exist without the boll weevil,” Smith says.
In 1925, an air war against the boll weevil was initiated by the Delta Dusters, which Smith says eventually became the Delta Airlines of today. It wasn't until 1955, however, that researchers first reported boll weevil resistance to pesticides.
Entomologists continued their research into what it takes to banish boll weevils from cotton fields. In 1964, researchers first observed the attraction of males to females in the field, which led to interest in live traps. Five years later in 1969, scientists chemically identified the boll weevil pheromone. “Much of the technology for the Cotton Belt's boll weevil eradication effort was developed in Mississippi,” Smith says.
Then in 1971, a pilot boll weevil eradication experiment started in south Mississippi. “It was very controversial, but it lowered boll weevils to very low numbers in that region,” Smith says. “It wasn't until 1977 that a similar program began in North Carolina and Virginia on 32,500 cotton acres. This time, the eradication program was highly successful, moving gradually from there across the Cotton Belt. The Southeast boll weevil eradication program expanded first to Georgia, Florida, Alabama and South Carolina, using boll weevil traps baited with pheromones. Due to this boll weevil eradication effort, Georgia passed Mississippi in cotton acreage in 2000.”
All that has changed in recent years, according to Smith. During the last five years, Mississippi has successfully carried out an eradication program that has virtually eliminated the boll weevil as a factor in cotton production. That has enabled Mississippi's acreage and yield to increase, erasing the advantages the Southeast had gained over the Mid-South.
Mississippi cotton growers produced record yields and benefited from higher prices in 2003, bringing the value of the state's cotton crop to $780 million and placing cotton behind only forestry and poultry in income to the state.
Meanwhile in Texas where it all began, three-fourths of the state's active eradication zones are close to driving boll weevils out of Texas cotton fields. Seven Texas boll weevil eradication zones, representing 4.2 million acres of cotton, have seen weevil populations reduced below levels that would qualify for suppressed status this year. Added to two zones already declared functionally eradicated, more than 5 million acres of Texas cotton are on the verge of eliminating the costly pest.