Stalk borers are moving into Southern Iowa cornfields

Stalk borers are moving into Southern Iowa cornfields

Scouting for migrating larvae of this insect pest should begin now to make timely treatment decisions.

Keeping track of degree day accumulation is a useful tool to estimate when common stalk borer larvae begin moving into cornfields from their overwintering hosts. Foliar applications of insecticide, if needed, are only effective when these larvae are migrating and exposed. That’s the advice of Erin Hodgson, Iowa State University Extension entomologist. She provides the following timely information and observations.

COMMON STALK BORER: Young corn plants are particularly vulnerable to severe injury from common stalk borer infestation, but corn plants are unlikely to be killed once they grow larger; that is, once they reach the V7 growth stage.

You should start scouting corn for larvae when 1,300 to 1,400 degree days (base 41 degrees F) have accumulated. Southern Iowa counties reached this important temperature benchmark over the Memorial Day holiday weekend (Figure 1). Therefore scouting for migrating larvae of common stalk borer should begin now to make timely treatment decisions. Stalk borer larvae in central and northern Iowa will migrate later in June.

Figure 1: Degree days accumulated (base 41°F) for stalk borer in Iowa (January 1 - May 31, 2016). Map courtesy of Iowa Environmental Mesonet, ISU Department of Agronomy

Stalk borers are moving into Southern Iowa cornfields

Management considerations for controlling this corn pest

Female moths (the adult stage of common stalk borer) prefer to lay their eggs in weedy areas in August and September, so minimizing weeds (especially giant ragweed) in and around corn during that time will make those fields less attractive. Long-term management requires controlling grassy edges around corn so that females will not lay eggs in that area during the fall.

To prevent stand loss this spring, scout the corn field now and determine the percent of infested plants. Consider applying an insecticide at peak larval movement, or when 1,400 to 1,700 degree days are reached (base 41 degrees ). The use of an economic threshold (Table 1), first developed by ISU entomologist Larry Pedigo, will help determine justifiable insecticide treatments based on market value of corn and the stage of growth of the corn plants in the field. Young plants have a lower threshold because they are more easily killed by stalk borer larvae.

Table 1: Economic thresholds (expressed as percent of infested plants with larvae in the whorl) for stalk borer in corn, based on market value, expected yield, and leaf stage.

Stalk borers are moving into Southern Iowa cornfields

Stalk borers tend to re-infest the same fields, so prioritize those fields for scouting first, and give extra attention to the field edges. Scout carefully. Applying insecticides to larvae that have already entered the stalk is not effective. Instead, target foliar applications to larvae as they are migrating from grasses to corn. Look for larvae inside the whorls of the young corn plants to determine the number of plants infested.

The larvae are not highly mobile and typically only move into the first four to six rows of corn. Look for new leaves with irregular feeding holes or look for small larvae resting inside the corn whorls. Larvae will excrete a considerable amount of frass pellets in the whorl or at the entry hole in the stalk. Young corn is particularly vulnerable to severe injury, but plants are unlikely to be killed once reaching V7 growth stage.

Using burndown herbicides before corn planting can force stalk borers to move from the weeds and infest the emerging corn plants. If application of an insecticide is warranted based on stalk borer densities, the application must be well-timed to reach exposed larvae before they burrow into the stalk. Treating the field borders—border rows of corn next to field edges or grass waterways, terraces, etc., should be considered—particularly because the infestations are localized. Make sure to read the label of the insecticide product you are using and follow directions, especially if tank-mixing it with herbicide, for optimal stalk borer control. 

Description—know what insect you are looking for

Stalk borer larvae have three pairs of true legs and four pairs of fleshy prolegs. The body is creamy white and dark purple with brown stripes. Often there is a creamy white stripe running down the back of the thorax and abdomen. A distinctive feature of stalk borer larvae is an orange head with two dark lateral stripes. The adults are dark grey and brown colored moths, with jagged white lines and two to three clusters of white spots.

Stalk borers only have one generation per year in Iowa

Stalk borers have one generation annually in Iowa. Stalk borer eggs are laid on grasses and weeds in the fall and overwinter in this cold-hardy stage. Egg hatch typically occurs around April 19 to June 5, and about 50% of egg hatch happens at 494 degree days. Young larvae will feed on grasses and weeds until they outgrow the stem of the host plant. The number of larval molts is variable, depending on food quality, and ranges from seven to nine instars. Migration to larger hosts begins around 1,300 to 1,400 degree days. Fully developed larvae drop to the soil to pupate. Approximately 50% of pupation happens at 2,746 degree days, with 50% adult emergence at 3,537 degree days. Peak adult moth flight occurs during the first two weeks of September.

Corn adjacent to grassy and weedy areas becomes a suitable food source for migrating larvae. The most susceptible corn growth stages for infestation are V1 to V5 or about 2 to 24 inches in plant height. Larvae can defoliate leaves and create non-economic injury. More often, larvae kill corn plants by entering the stalk and destroying the growing point (i.e., flagging or dead heart). A dead heart corn plant will have outer leaves that appear healthy, but the newest whorl leaves die and can cause barren plants—they will develop with no ears on them.

For more information on stalk borer biology and management, read a Journal of Integrated Pest Management article by Rice and Davis (2010), called “Stalk borer ecology and IPM in corn.”

TAGS: Extension
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