BOLL WEEVIL. The boll weevil is a snout beetle (Anthonomus grandis) first named by Carl H. Boheman, a Swedish systematist. He assumed that the specimens came from Cuba, but modern research indicates that they were collected near Veracruz in 1840. Ancient specimens have been found from the earliest times in the valley of Mexico. The ravages of the insect have been known in Mexico for at least two millenia. American entomologists became aware of the boll weevil as a cotton pest as early as 1880, but its first introduction to Texas seems to have been announced by Charles W. DeRyee, a druggist of Corpus Christi, in a letter dated October 3, 1894. The insect, which proved to be one of the most devastating pests ever introduced to American agriculture, was definitely identified by Dr. Eugene A. Schwarz. The boll weevil is about one-fourth inch in length and changes from white to black as it matures. The beetles are susceptible to winter freezes, and those that survive hibernation emerge in the spring to feed for five or six weeks on the tender growth of young cotton plants. As the season progresses, they eat and lay eggs in the cotton buds and new bolls. Each punctured bud or boll falls to the ground and becomes food for the eggs that hatch in two or three days. The boll weevil migrated across the Rio Grande and had spread from the Valley to the Sabine and Red rivers by the beginning of the twentieth century. By 1903 it covered all of eastern Texas to the Edwards Plateau and by the 1920s had reached north and west to the High Plains, then encompassing all the geographic areas of Texas cotton production. Boll weevil infestation caused a steady drop in cotton yields over a thirty-year period. The greatest destruction was in the South Texas fields. In 1904 an estimated 700,000 bales were lost to the boll weevil, at a cost of $42 million. Damage that resulted in about a 6 percent yield reduction in 1910 leaped to a 34 percent reduction in 1921. Fifty-three years later the per-acre yield reduction due to boll weevils still hovered at 7 percent and cost an estimated $260 million.
Unlike many other insects, the boll weevil was resistant to conventional insecticides, poisons, and then-known antipest practices. Its spread from Mexico depended on a combination of appropriate weather conditions and cultivation practices, coupled with a shortage of cotton gins. Cotton bolls with seed were often transported from the lower Rio Grande valley to gins as far north as Alice, and this practice may have contributed to the spread of the weevil. Basic information on the relationship of the boll weevil to the cotton plant and other cultivated plants was explored by C. H. Tyler Townsend, one of the many colorful personalities involved in the early fight against the boll weevil. Townsend was an official of the United States Department of Agriculture who traveled through southern Texas in 1894 and reported as much as 90 percent crop damage in that area. In 1899 the state appointed Frederick W. Mally, an entomologist, to direct state efforts to combat the insect. Mally launched a cultivation plan intended to produce crops early, before the weevils multiplied. But record freezes that delayed early planting, heavy rainfall, and the great Galveston hurricane of 1900 all combined to help spread the boll weevil in spite of Mally's brilliant but seriously underfunded labors.
In 1901 E. Dwight Sanderson succeeded Mally as state entomologist. He continued many of Mally's programs, but in addition the Texas legislature chose to offer a $50,000 prize for discovery of a way to rid Texas of the boll weevil. The proclamation was made from the Capitol steps on July 13, 1903. A Boll Weevil Commission was appointed by Gov. S. W. T. Lanham to evaluate the claims and claimants to the prize. But no one really expected the contest to work. The prize offered by the legislature made both themselves and the boll weevil a figure of fun for newspapers throughout the nation, and this episode is sometimes found in civics or government texts as an illustration of the foolishness of lawmaking bodies. A more meaningful effort to control the boll weevil occurred on Walter C. Porter's demonstration farm at Terrell, where Seaman A. Knapp led the work that later served as a model for the National Extension Service. The boll weevil continued to spread year by year through Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Virginia. By World War I, calcium arsenate had been found reasonably effective in poisoning the insect, and during the 1920s fluorides were introduced. Mally's cultivation practices continued to be a sensible and important way to manage boll weevil infestations. Organic pesticides and traps depending on synthetic sex pheromones have not been so effective with the boll weevil as they have been with other insects. The possibility of eradication of the organism simply by suspending cotton culture for two or more years over a broad region has not been disproved, but neither has it been fully tested. Since the boll weevil does not survive well on the High Plains of Texas, this region seems to be more favorable to future cotton production than the coastal areas. See also COTTON CULTURE.
Samuel Lee Evans, Texas Agriculture, 1880–1930 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas, 1960). Frank Wagner, The Boll Weevil Comes to Texas (Friends of the Corpus Christi Museum, 1980).