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Pink bollworm control: greatest environmental story seldom told

  • The San Joaquin Valley escapes wrath of world's most destructive cotton pest for four decades thanks to the effort of thousands.

If all goes well with the final stages of the PBW eradication program, directed by the Arizona Cotton Research and Protection Council, pink bollworm will become a nightmare from the past.

Control and eradication of the pink bollworm is a remarkable accomplishment. I have written thousands of words on the subject since the mid-1960s when University of Arizona entomologist first started researching pheromones to monitor PBW life stages in the hopes of timing pesticides for the highest efficacy. It was called science fiction then by many growers, who said the only way to control pink bollworm was to spray cheap pesticides on weekly schedules. I also recall very contentious meetings in Imperial Valley where growers and University of California entomologists sparred over controlling pink bollworm.

There were also detractors in the San Joaquin Valley who said there was no need to fund the exclusion program. After all, the pink bollworm could never survive the cold, wet valley winters; the San Joaquin Valley was not the Arizona desert. The Cotton Pest Control Board accepted the recommendation of entomologists to erect small cages in the middle of SJV cotton fields, and introduce fertile pink bollworms into them to test that coffee shop theory. After watching three and four generations thrive in those cages, detractors faded away.

There may be some now who say with the eradication program nearing final success, there is no need to continue the program in the valley. That is nearsightedness. The need for sterile moth releases may lessen, but you can bet cotton industry leaders will continue to press for grower funding of ongoing mapping and monitoring of cotton fields.

The state-of-the-art PBW rearing facility may scale back, but it will likely remain ready to gear back up again if PBW returns or is utilized for rearing and sterilizing other pests for use in another control/eradication project. I am obviously no entomologist, but I can identify several troublesome lepidopterous pests in California who may be prime targets for a program like the PBW model.

I am reluctant to name names here for those who have played key roles in this extraordinary environmental accomplishment besides Jack, Wally and Richard. I would leave off someone in a list that would stretch for pages. However, at Wally’s insistence he asked that I point out the career-long work of Bob Staten, a 'retired' USDA-ARS entomologist who has never stopped working toward the eradication of the pink bollworm. He is still in the thick of the eradication effort.

Staten is a bohemian entomologist. He is unquestionably brilliant, unconventional, unselfish and tireless. He never wavered from his passionate scientific belief that pink bollworm can be eradicated.

Reflecting back on this story, you wonder whether a similar program could be initiated today in this era of environmental radicalism. Sadly, I think it would be very challenging. We have already experienced the scientifically irrational behavior of some to the pheromone-focused control of the light brown apple moth (LBAM) in Northern California.

Can you imagine how the nutcases would react to the idea of rearing and irradiating insects to aerially drop them to overwhelm a native pest? The radicals would likely try to place pink bollworm into the Endangered Species Act.

Boldness is what it took 40 years ago when the army of committed growers and scientists embarked on turning back the pink bollworm. It is a success story that is worthy of the highest scientific recognition.

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