Bollworms rising!

One of the most pernicious pests that U.S. farmers have battled is the larval stage of Helicoverpa zea (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae). This insect is destructive enough to have earned not just one official common name, but four (corn earworm, cotton bollworm, soybean podworm, and tomato fruitworm)—one for each of the crops in which it has attained major pest status. It isn’t only North American farmers, however, that must deal with this pest, but South American farmers as well. For many decades, corn and cotton have been its most important hosts in North America, but in recent years its importance has increased steadily in soybean as well, particularly across the mid-south. In South America, however, it seems satisfied—curiously—to confine its attacks to corn. Lest you think that South American farmers are getting off easy, there are other species of Helicoverpa in South America that are causing problems of their own. Perhaps the most troubling one is H. armigera, the Old World bollworm¹—a sister species to H. zea (Goldsmith & Marec 2010) native to Africa, Asia, and Australia and just as polyphagous as H. zea that was recently found infesting corn, cotton, soybean, and other crops in several areas of Brazil.

¹ Interestingly, in the Old World this species is called the “American bollworm,” despite the fact that it did not come from the Americas at all. I guess neither hemisphere wants to take the blame for this species.

Helicoverpa gelotopeon (South American bollworm) | Buenos Aires Province, Argentina

Helicoverpa gelotopeon (South American bollworm) | Buenos Aires Province, Argentina

While we wait to see what impact H. armigera ends up having in South America, another species of the genus is quietly rising from the ranks of secondary to primary pest further south on the continent. For many years, Helicoverpa gelotopeon (or South American bollworm) has been a sometimes pest of cotton and other crops in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay (Evangelina et al. 2012), but in a situation that mirrors the rise of H. zea on soybean in North America, the incidence of H. gelotopeon has grown during the past few years in the more southern soybean growing areas of South America as well. Like its North American counterpart, this insect causes not only indirect damage by feeding on the foliage of the plant during vegetative stages of growth (reducing photosynthetic capacity of the plant), but also direct damage by feeding on the developing pods during reproductive stages of growth. Predictably (and regrettably), farmers have responded by increasing applications of organophosphate insecticides, but the efficacy of these products—despite their relatively high toxicity—has often been inadequate to prevent yield losses. As a result, other management techniques and technologies will be required to keep this insect from having a major impact on soybean production in the temperate regions of Argentina.

Young larvae feed on foliage (note the very small caterpillar in the lower center area of the leaf).

Young larvae feed on foliage (note the very small caterpillar in lower left area of the leaf).

A mid-instar larvae feeding on soybean foliage.

A mid-instar larvae feeds on soybean foliage and exhibits the black pinacula characteristic of the subfamily.

Larger larvae feed on developing pods, breaching the wall of the pod to consume the seeds within.

Larger larvae feed on developing pods, breaching the wall of the pod to consume the seeds within.

Adults are slightly smaller than H. zea and a little darker with somewhat bolder markings.

The photographs in this post may well be the best—and perhaps even the only ones—available of this species. A Google image search turned up nothing, and have I been unable to find any literature with photographs of either the adults or the larvae and their damage. If you are aware of any please leave a comment with the citation.


Goldsmith, M. R. & Marec, F. 2010. Molecular Biology and Genetics of the Lepidoptera. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida, 368 pp.

Evangelina, P., F. Crepo & J. C. Gamundi. 2012. Evaluación del daño simulado de “oruga bolillera” Helicoverpa gelotopoeon (Dyar) en estados vegetativos del cultivo de soja. Unpublished report, Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria (INTA), 6 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2013

9 thoughts on “Bollworms rising!

  1. I stopped in here because WP recommended your site because we have common followers. I like shooting insects too but unlike you, I am not very often knowing what I captured. You have wonderful macro shots, and I am glad I was sent here. As a Master Gardener seeing a lot of insect damage, your site is very helpful too.

    • I always cringe when I see the term, ” insect damage.” Why is it when a deer decimates a population of endangered native plants it is called “browsing”, but when any insect eats a miniscule amount of plant tissue it is causing “damage”?

  2. Pingback: What makes an insects blog great? | Apterobittacus ESPM42


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