It seems that every season has a pest problem. Right now, I am getting plenty of calls about fleas, leafspot diseases on trees and diseases in grass. It is a never-ending cycle of pests.
We need to get ready for the next set of pests that will be showing up in a couple of weeks. Around the last week of August and the first couple of weeks in September, we have problems with fall armyworms and red-headed azalea caterpillars.
Fall armyworms (Spodop-tera frugiperda) are a tropical species that survives in warmer climates along the Gulf Coast or south Florida. They start infesting plants in south Florida in February and March and move north as the weather warms. They tend to show up in our area around the last week of August or first week of September, and they can last until frost.
We have some armyworms every year, but about once every three years we have a major outbreak. We didn't have a major outbreak last year. In our area, fall armyworms are major pests of bermuda grass, millets and fall vegetables. I get the most calls because of damage done to home lawns, hay fields and pastures. Armyworms will attack other grasses besides bermuda.
Armyworms get their name from the large number of caterpillars that can be in an area. The adult stage is a moth. The female moth lays about 400 eggs in a mass. These eggs are laid at night on plants, flagpoles, stones or anything that is close to the food source.
When the caterpillars are small, they will chew on the bottom side of the leaf and usually don't consume the whole leaf. As the caterpillars get larger, they consume the entire leaf or plant.
When the food source becomes scarce, the entire population will move en masse to a new food source. I have seen a 2,000-square-foot lawn have tens of thousands of armyworms. This many caterpillars can eat a lawn this size overnight.
Not every caterpillar that you find this time of year is a fall armyworm. The way that you can identify armyworms is they have an upside down Y on their heads.
If you have a spot in your lawn that is missing the foliage, start looking for armyworms. In bright sunlight, armyworms will be found near the soil surface.
You can use a soap flush to help find the caterpillars by using 3 to 5 gallons of water with 2 tablespoons of dishwashing liquid. Fill the container with water then add the soap. Pour this soap mixture over an area 3 feet by 3 feet.
If there are caterpillars or other insects in the turfgrass, they will emerge.
If you have armyworms, you can treat them with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt, Dipel), carbaryl (Sevin) or various pyrethroids found in garden centers. We can have up to two generations of armyworms in the fall, so watch for them until frost.
The other pest that we encounter is the red-headed azalea caterpillar. This is a serious defoliator of azaleas. The azaleas look great one day, and the next they have no foliage. These caterpillars are brightly colored, with yellow and black bodies and red legs and head. When you touch them, they arch backward forming a "C" shape.
The female moth, as in the case of armyworms, lays a large number of eggs in a cluster, so there are a large number of caterpillars on one shrub. I had someone tell me last week that they have found some of these caterpillars on their azaleas. This is a little early, but I wouldn't be surprised, because I have seen a number of pests earlier and later than they normally appear.
You can control these caterpillars with the same products used to control armyworms. Acephate (orthene) also can be used to control them. Make sure that the temperature is in the 80s or lower before using acephate or you can burn your plants.
The best thing that you can do for now is to scout your plants and lawn for these pests. Scouting is done by looking at your plants or using the soap flushes in your lawn to find small caterpillars.
When you find small caterpillars, you will need to treat your lawn or plants. The smaller the caterpillars, the easier they are to control.
Columbia County Extension Agent Charles Phillips can be reached at (706) 868-3413 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The Extension Web address is www.ugaextension.com/columbia.
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