The voracious crop-shredding fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) has spread 260km from Centane to Bathurst in a few months.
This was revealed in a research paper presented at a seminar by Nolitha Skenjana, a production scientist at Dohne research facility, on August 3.
The worm appeared in Centane in May and, according to Skenjana’s research, moved to Willowvale before appearing in maize in Lilyfontein outside East London.
In three months, it has moved from Centane to infest sorghum fields at Bathurst.
Skenjana wrote that tests had revealed that the worm had infested “80% to 100%” of the areas where it was found.
Rural development and agrarian reform spokesman Mvusi Sicwetsha referred queries to Dr Tembakazi Silwana, director of plant and crop production research in the department, who said that in its moth stage the insect flew long distances, rendering it hard to contain.
“The pest can be spread by everything from the wind to people and cars coming from infected areas,” Silwana said.
“The sustained drought conditions since spring have helped it spread even faster because that is the weather it thrives in.
“Fortunately, with the weather getting colder and damper, the spread should be slowed down.
“We are concerned that it may spring up again around summer but should that happen we will be more than ready to combat it.”
Silwana said even though the worm preferred to devour wheat, “the fall armyworm has never been in South Africa before and will eat anything to survive”.
“When the fall armyworm begins eating at a plant it starts at the growth point. Once that is eaten, the plant can no longer grow.
“From there it eats the stem and foliage. So the loss of the parts of the plant which the armyworm specifically targets leaves the plant completely hopeless.”
Silwana said the department was taking measures to combat the pest. It had launched an awareness campaign to teach farmers how to identify the worm and how to spray for it.
“We have properly trained and educated extension officers throughout the province to deal with this armyworm and to assist farmers,” she said.
Silwana appealed to farmers to scout their crops for the fall armyworm from planting to harvest.