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The boll weevil (Anthonomus grandis) is a beetle measuring an average length of six millimeters, which feeds on cotton buds and flowers. Thought to be native to Central America, it migrated into the USmarker from Mexicomarker in the late 18th century and had infested all US cotton-growing areas by the 1920s, devastating the industry and the people working in the American south. During the late 20th century it became a serious pest in South America as well. Since 1978, the Boll Weevil Eradication Program in the US has allowed full-scale cultivation to resume in many regions.

Life cycle

Adult weevils overwinter in well-drained areas in or near cotton fields after diapause. They (the boll weevil) emerge and enter cotton fields from early spring through midsummer, with peak emergence in late spring, and feed on immature cotton bolls. The female lays about 200 eggs over a 10-12 day period. The oviposition leaves wounds on the exterior of the flower bud. The eggs hatch in three to five days. The larvae feed within the cotton squares for eight to ten days, then pupate. The pupal stage lasts five to seven days. The life cycle from egg to adult spans about three weeks during the summer. Under optimal conditions there may be eight to 10 generations per season. According to the book "From Can See to Can't" by Thad Sitton and Dan Utley, "Under ideal conditions for reproduction--which fortunately seldom existed--the progeny of a single pair of weevils emerging in the spring could reach something like 134 million before the coming of frost."

Boll weevils will begin to die at temperatures at or below 23 degrees Fahrenheit. Research at the University of Missourimarker indicates they cannot survive more than an hour at 5 degrees Fahrenheit. The insulation offered by leaf litter, crop residues, and snow may enable the beetle to survive when air temperatures drop to these levels.

Other limitations on boll weevil populations include extreme heat and drought. Its natural predators include fire ants, insects, spiders, birds, and a parasitic wasp, Catolaccus grandis. The insects at times engage in what seems to be almost suicidal behavior by emerging from diapause before cotton buds are available.

Infestation

The insect crossed the Rio Grandemarker near Brownsville, Texasmarker to enter the United Statesmarker from Mexicomarker in 1892 and reached southeastern Alabamamarker in 1915. By the mid 1920s it had entered all cotton growing regions in the US, travelling 40 to 160 miles per year. It remains the most destructive cotton pest in North America. Mississippi State Universitymarker has estimated that since the boll weevil entered the United States it has cost US cotton producers about $13 billion, and in recent times about $300 million per year.

The cotton boll weevil: a, adult beetle; b, pupa; c, larva.


The boll weevil contributed to the economic woes of Southern farmers during the 1920s, a situation exacerbated by the Great Depression in the 1930s.

The Library of Congressmarker American Memory Project contains a number of oral history materials on the boll weevil's impact. In one of the project's features, a 1939 interview for the Federal Writers' Project, South Carolina native Mose Austin recalled that his employer was adamant. "He don't want nothin' but cotton planted on de place; dat he in debt and hafter raise cotton to git de money to pay wid." Austin let out a long guffaw before recounting, "De boll weevil come...and, bless yo' life, dat bug sho' romped on things dat fall." Austin remembered that the following spring, his employer insisted on planting cotton in spite of warnings from his wife, his employees, and government agricultural experts:

De cotton come up and started to growin', and, suh, befo' de middle of May I looks down one day and sees de boll weevil settin' up dere in de top of dem little cotton stalks waitin' for de squares to fo'm. So all dat gewano us hauled and put down in 1922 made nuttin' but a crop of boll weevils.


The next year, Austin's employer tried the same ill-fated experiment. Ultimately, the man lost his farm and moved with his disgruntled wife to Californiamarker.

The boll weevil infestation has been credited with bringing about economic diversification in the southern US, including the expansion of peanut cropping. The citizens of Enterprise, Alabamamarker erected the Boll Weevil Monumentmarker in 1919, perceiving that their economy had been overly dependent on cotton, and that mixed farming and manufacturing were better alternatives.

The boll weevil appeared in Venezuelamarker in 1949 and in Colombiamarker in 1950. The Amazon Rainforest was thought to present a barrier to its further spread, but it was detected in Brazilmarker in 1983, and it is estimated that about 90% of the cotton farms in Brazil are now infested. During the 1990s the weevil spread to Paraguaymarker and Argentinamarker. The International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) has proposed a control program similar to that used in the US.

Control

Following World War II the development of new pesticides such as DDT enabled US farmers to again grow cotton as an economic crop, but at great expense and environmental risk. In 1978 a test was conducted in North Carolinamarker to determine feasibility of eradicating the weevil from the growing areas. Based on the success of this, area-wide programs were begun in the 1980s to eradicate the insect from whole regions. These are based on cooperative effort by all growers together with the assistance of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the United States Department of Agriculturemarker (USDA). The program has been successful in eradicating weevils from Virginiamarker and the Carolina, Georgiamarker, Floridamarker, south Alabamamarker, Californiamarker, and Arizonamarker. Efforts are ongoing to eradicate the weevil from the rest of the United States. Continued success is also based on prohibition of unauthorized cotton growing, outside of the program, and constant monitoring for any recurring outbreaks.

Entomologists at Texas A&Mmarker have pointed to the spread of fire ants as a factor in the weevil's population decline.

Other avenues of control that have been explored include weevil-resistant strains of cotton,
the parasitic wasp Catolaccus grandis, the fungus Beauveria bassiana, and the Chilo iridescent virus. Genetically engineered Bt cotton is not protected from the boll weevil.


In popular culture

Boll weevil monument, Enterprise, Alabama.

Politics

  • Politically, a boll weevil is a term used to describe conservative Southern Democrats. The Conservative Democratic Forum (CDF), also known as the Boll Weevils, are conservative to moderate Democrats who in the early 1980’s were an important element in the coalition that supported Ronald Reagan’s economic proposals in Congress.


Music

Boll weevils are featured prominently in a number of blues, country, folk, and rock songs:

  • Blues pioneer Charley Patton wrote the first known song about the boll weevil, "Mississippi Bo Weavil Blues," in 1910, and recorded it (as "The Masked Marvel") on a 78 for Paramount Records in July 1929.


  • "Mother of the Blues" Ma Rainey recorded "Bo-Weevil Blues" in Chicago in December, 1923 and re-recorded the song in 1927. It was also covered by Bessie Smith in 1924.






  • Pink Anderson (1900-1974) recorded the blues number Boll Weevil in Spartanburg South Carolina in 1961.


  • The Elvis Presley song "Little Sister" from 1961 says "she's mean and she's evil like the little boll weevil"


  • The 1968 musical Hair references boll weevils in the song "Yes I's Finished on Y'all's Farmland."








  • The band Indian Ocean recorded a 1997 song called "Boll Weevil" about tribal peoples in Indiamarker reacting to harassment by officials.


  • Nina Simone references "boll weevils" in the song Funkier Than A Mosquito's Tweeter.


  • The Mills Brothers refer to "Thou aeronautical boll weevil" in Glow-Worm.


  • Texas songster Mance Lipscomb sings a version of the song, somewhat sympathetic to the plight of the Boll Weevil, entitled "Ballad of the Boll Weevil" on Trouble in Mind, Reprise R-2012.




Sports





  • The Boll Weevils is one of the two teams competing in the Sledgehammer organisation's Ryder Wedge Golf competition in Rotorua, New Zealand in 2008. The name pays homage to the destructive nature of the boll weevil on cotton. Steve Cotton is the captain of the rival team, the Wild Turkeys.


Other



  • A daily passenger train on the Seaboard Air Line Railroad in the 1930s and 1940s along the Carolina coast was known as "The Boll Weevil Express."


  • The Secret Order of Boll Weevils is a group of merrymen associated with Carnival Memphis.


  • The town of Enterprise, Alabama has a monument to the boll weevil for destroying the cotton crop and necessitating the growing of peanuts, soy beans, and other crops that turned out to be much more profitable.


  • The town of Marshville, North Carolina has an annual Boll Weevil Festival, a street fair and carnival held in September.


  • In the movie Sordid Lives, a character named Juanita Bartlett says, "I've seen boll weevils in flour, cornmeal and paper..paprika...but never in a rooster that you made in vacation bible school!"


  • Organic Chemistry Professor Steven Pedersen at the University of California Berkeley frequently puts questions regarding boll weevils on his midterms and final exams


References

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