The boll weevil
) 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 US
in the late 19th 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.
Adult weevils overwinter in well-drained areas in or near cotton fields after diapause. They 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.
Boll weevils will begin to die at temperatures at or below 23 degrees Fahrenheit. Research at the University of Missouri 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.
The insect crossed the Rio Grande near Brownsville, Texas to enter the United States from Mexico in 1892 and reached southeastern Alabama 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 University 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 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 Congress 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 California.
The boll weevil infestation has, however, been credited with bringing about economic diversification in the southern US, including the expansion of peanut cropping. The citizens of Enterprise, Alabama erected the Boll Weevil Monument 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 Venezuela in 1949 and in Colombia in 1950. The Amazon Rainforest was thought to present a barrier to its further spread, but it was detected in Brazil 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 Paraguay and Argentina. The International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) has proposed a control program similar to that used in the US.
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 Carolina
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 Agriculture
(USDA). The program has been successful in eradicating weevils from Virginia
and the Carolinas
, south Alabama
, and Arizona
. 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&M 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 weevils are featured prominently in dozens of blues
, and rock
- Blues pioneer Charley Patton wrote the first known song about the Boll weevil, "Mississippi Bo Weavil Blues", in 1910, and recorded it on a 78 for Paramount Records in July 1929. All known versions of the boll weevil song appear to be variations on Patton's original of 1910.
- "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.
- Bob Dylan is an old boll weevil looking for a home in his song Silvio
- Folk/Blues musician Huddie Ledbetter (aka Lead Belly), working as driver and field assistant, recorded "Boll Weevil" for John A. Lomax on October 15, 1934 in Shreveport, Louisiana, and again the following year in Wilton, Connecticut. This version was later covered by Lead Belly fan and collaborator Tex Ritter and also by modern alternative band The White Stripes, who end almost every live show with "Ballad of the Boll Weevil".
- Woody Guthrie sang "Boll Weevil Song" in a recording session for Alan Lomax on March 21, 1940.
- Buster Ezell performed a song called "The Boll Weevil" twice during the Fort Valley State College Folk Festival of 1941.
- The 1968 musical Hair references Boll Weevils in its song "Yes I's Finished on Y'all's Farmland."
- The band The Presidents of the United States of America recorded a song called "Boll Weevil" on their 1995 self-titled debut album.
- The band Indian Ocean recorded a song called "Boll Weevil" about tribal peoples in India reacting to harassment by officials.
- Shocking Blue's 1969 album At Home features a song titled "Boll Weevil".
- Brook Benton made the insect a popular epithet through his album The Boll Weevil Song And 11 Other Great Hits. Here the reference to the boll weevil becomes a person looking for home or another person for subsistence.
- Elvis Presley made a reference to a boll weevil in his song "Little Sister".
- Tina Turner scornfully described the subject of the song "Funkier Than a Mosquito's Tweeter" (later recorded by both Nina Simone and Nikka Costa) as having "a mouth like a herd of boll weevils."
- "Spider" John Koerner covered the song "Boll Weevil" on his album Raised by Humans.
- The North Mississippi Allstars recorded "Mississippi Boll Weevil" on their 2006 album Electric Blue Watermelon.
- The rock band Clutch made a reference to a boll weevil in the song "Rock n' Roll Outlaw", on their album Clutch.
- Tom Lehrer's song "I Wanna Go Back to Dixie" refers to the Deep South as "The land of the boll weevil/Where the laws are medieval".
- Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane wrote the song "Imagine" for the 1954 film Athena. In this song, Debbie Reynolds sings to Vic Damone, "Imagine you're a weevil - an old boll weevil, suppose a field of cotton is me, if you came along and settled down in it... fetch the DDT."
- There is a lewd folk band in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, named The Screamin' Boweevils.
- Violent Femmes made a reference to boll weevil in song "I Swear It (I Can Change)" performed in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut: "You know my momma picked cotton/And my daddy Boll Weevil"
- In a skit on Cheech & Chong's album Big Bambu, soul DJ Right-On Washington refers to blues singer Blind Melon Chitlin' as having "boll weevils crawling all over him, man".
- Ween makes mention of the Boll Weevil in the song "Big Jilm".
- Between 1996 and 2000, the minor league baseball team in Kannapolis, North Carolina was called the Piedmont Boll Weevils, a nod to the city's heritage as a textile mill town.
- The University of Arkansas at Monticello's sports teams are known as the Boll Weevils.
- 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.
- 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!"
- A restaurant chain in San Diego is called "The Boll Weevil".
- 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.
- Junkyard Willie Robinson of The Touchtone Terrorists prank calls CDs occasionally makes boll weevil references to inbound callers, much to their vexation. He says, "This homeboy can get on it like bugspray on boll weevils!" Junkyard Willie is a black man who shines hubcaps and professes to hail from Gator's Creek, Georgia, thus keeping in line with the boll weevil's cultural relevance to the South. -c728
- 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. Enterprise, Alabama - Boll Weevil Monument. Retrieved on 2008-04-20..
- Boll weevil Caucus: Politically, a boll weevil is a term used to describe conservative Southern Democrats. The name derives from the boll weevil insect, a beetle that infests cotton plants in the South. 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. Source: Congressional caucuses in national policy making by Susan Webb Hammond