Circa 1892, a small beetle native to Central or South America made its way across the Mexican border in the vicinity of Brownsville, Texas and spread rapidly across cotton-growing regions. By the 1920s, Anthonomus grandis, the boll weevil, was causing more economic damage than any agricultural pest in U.S. history.
The boll weevil feeds on cotton pollen, but does its damage by laying eggs on cotton flower buds called “squares,” or on the young developing cotton boll, which provides the beetle with a platform for its “home.” The infected bud or boll stops developing and often falls off as the beetle larvae eat it. The destruction spread from Texas across the South and Southwest, so that by the Great Depression, cotton farmers had already suffered from many years of devastatingly poor harvests. Eventually, it found its way to California cotton fields as well.
The first pesticide used on infested cotton crops was arsenic, but the boll weevil developed a tolerance for it. Another pesticide, DDT, was tried in the mid-twentieth century, but, once again, the pests developed a resistance to it. Plus, the heavy application of pesticides killed a wide spectrum of beneficial insects, allowing other pests to increase their numbers and damage cotton and other crops. And there was a danger of polluted adjacent food crops, water supplies and consequential ecological damage.
But humans are adaptable, too. A variety of strategies—started in the 1970s—such as pheromone traps in the spring, hand picking infected cotton buds during the growing season, plowing under the cotton stalks after harvest, and low levels of pesticides when the insect is short of food in the fall, all helped to stem the destructive tide of boll weevil devastation.
An important ingredient in the mix was Hawaiian cotton. When ma’o is crossed with other cotton strains, the resulting commercial hybrids are less attractive to insect pests that destroy cotton crops. Ma’o lacks the flavor lactones within the nectar which would otherwise attract insects to commercial cotton.
Now, in most states, the boll weevil and other cotton pests have left and are unlikely to return. But in Enterprise, Alabama, the city has erected a statue to the boll weevil because, they say, there is a great deal we can learn from an invasive bug, even as we show it the door.
Perhaps they should erect a statue to Ma’o, the Hawaiian cotton plant, too.
p.s. visitors to Oahu, Hawaii, can find ma’o growing wild along the dry slopes at the Makapu’u scenic lookout.