2010 was the worst worm year on soybeans since 1977, Pierce says. Hoping that 2010 was just an isolated year in which all the conditions were right, the veteran North Carolina crop consultant, who was named Cotton Consultant of the Year a few years back, approached the 2011 cropping season with a little more caution than usual, taking a closer look for these later generation earworms.

“The same thing happened in 2011. The third generation peaked with lots of fields needing spraying during this time as is normal, but after this peak, earworms kept coming and lots of fields had to be sprayed twice.

“In 2010 many fields had to be sprayed twice. These were fields that were not blooming the first time they were sprayed. This was third generation moths. Re-invasion occurred a few weeks later during bloom, which required a second insecticide application. This reinvasion was from fourth generation moths.” 

For the second consecutive year this fourth generation emergence during the end of August did too well for most growers. 

“Corn earworm developed like I have never seen. This development was responsible for a lengthy and costly "worm season," he adds.

Last year (2011), which was the lightest "worm year" I can remember, no fields needed spraying twice, except for fields with high populations of later than normal occurring corn earworm. Again, this end of August, fourth generation, flight developed well, the North Carolina crop consultant says.

“I have never seen fourth generation corn earworms survive like they have the last two years. Hopefully, this insect hasn't changed and become more adapted to our cropping systems. For whatever reasons, it appears we must scout diligently late in the season. I am hoping its just a "two year thing" and earworms in soybeans will return to normal next year,” he adds.

Dominic Reisig, who is a North Carolina State University entomologist and IPM specialist stationed at the Tidewater Research Center in Plymouth, N.C., says corn earworm definitely did not behave as normal last year.

“Corn earworm densities held steady in eastern North Carolina soybeans after Hurricane Irene hit on Aug. 27-28. Prior to Irene, pheromone trap and light trap catches decreased. After the hurricane, I expected that population densities would crash due to wind and rain.

“This did not happen, but I still expected most caterpillars to cycle through soybeans, pupate and fizzle out. This typical scenario also didn’t happen, as I observed that both pheromone and light trap catches held steady in the week following the hurricane,” Reisig says.

If soybeans are planted on time, the crop should mature ahead of these damaging late-season insects. However, if the insects and crop meet at the wrong time, damage can be severe.

Young larvae feed on flowers and tender foliage. This injury normally occurs on late-maturing varieties prior to seed enlargement. Later in the season, corn earworms prefer to feed on soybean pods, often causing a serious yield loss.

During heavy infestations (six or more per foot of row), most pods may be destroyed, forcing the larvae to become foliage feeders. Entire fields in North Carolina have been stripped of pods and foliage during such heavy infestations.

Avoiding this kind of late season damage to highly valuable soybeans is something growers may need to look at a bit closer, if the past two years are indicative of how corn earworms are going to occur in the future, Pierce stresses.