Texas Extension efforts pay off against sugarcane aphid

Texas sorghum growers avoided an estimated $160 million in losses from the sugarcane aphid this year, thanks to the education and outreach efforts of a team of specialists from Texas A&M, LSU Ag Center and Oklahoma State University.

In July 2013, an entomologist at Texas A&M AgriLife Research began receiving reports of a new species of aphid on grain sorghum in the Upper Gulf Coast region. Later in the year, the aphid population increased substantially but caused no damage since most of the crop had already been harvested.

However, in a few areas where sorghum had been planted later in the season, the aphids had produced honeydew so thick and sticky that leaves and stalks got stuck in the harvesting equipment. Farmers reported yield losses of over 50%.

sugarcane aphid distribution

2013-14 sugarcane aphid distribution

Scientists at Texas A&M identified the aphid as a member of the genus Melanaphis but weren’t certain whether it was M. sacchari, an exotic sugarcane aphid that originated from Africa, or M. sorghi, a related sugarcane aphid species. Dr. William Rooney, agronomist and sorghum breeder with Texas A&M AgriLife Research, volunteered his late planted sorghum nursery as a sugarcane aphid study site, and he and Texas A&M entomologists watched the aphid colonize seedlings and feed on the plants until they died. Even if plants survived, their seed production was greatly reduced. Experiments led to the conclusion that the aphid was M. sacchari, an exotic invasive sugarcane aphid originating from Brazil.

To prepare for the season the following year, scientists at Texas A&M, in addition to some experts from LSU Ag Center and Oklahoma State University, created the Melanaphis Task Force. The Task Force would organize the research and educational effort before the start of the 2014 growing season. The goal was to equip growers with information and tools with which they could manage the pest.

The team—which included entomologists, agronomists, plant breeders, extension agents and communications specialists—worked through the winter to find insecticides, cultural practices, thresholds, resistant cultivars and other tools that growers could use to save their crop from the pest. Insecticides labeled for sugarcane were not effective against the pest; however, one insecticide that was not labeled for sugarcane performed well. The Task Force petitioned the Texas Department of Agriculture, as well as the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry and the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture to prepare a Section 18 for the chemical, and the label was approved in April 2014, before the growing season started.

Through the spring Task Force members tested sugarcane aphid resistant sorghum varieties, developed thresholds for beginning treatments, looked for insect predators and studied the aphid’s biology and reproduction abilities. As scientists reached conclusions and began developing new sorghum hybrids, extension agents and communication specialists kept growers and the media informed of new practices and available methods.

Because Task Force members were on the alert through the spring, they were able to catch the aphid as it began to reproduce more rapidly. Using the thresholds that had been developed, Extension specialists communicated treatment action levels helping growers and consultants determine when to spray the fields. The spray treatment—many growers only had to use one all season—killed the aphid populations before they had a chance to do any damage. John W. Norman, Jr., a private consultant for the Lower Rio Grande Valley, said that the education efforts and well-timed insecticide treatment saved growers nearly $70 million in losses in the lower Rio Grande Valley.

“I personally witnessed those relatively few fields of grain sorghum which had overwhelming sugarcane aphid infestations and no insecticide application and near complete loss of yield potential from SA feeding damage,” Norman said. “I compared the damaged fields to most fields which had only one properly timed insecticide application or no insecticide treatment (due to being below apparent threshold levels) and what appears to be near normal yield potential.

The Extension effort on just the aphid issue in grain sorghum alone in 2014 was highly effective and resulted in growers being able to significantly reduce costs and save yield with minimal inputs against a highly destructive pest, in my opinion.”

The Texas Grain Sorghum Association estimated savings for the entire state at $160 million in Texas. The sugarcane aphid did not damage the Texas sugarcane crop located in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, but the aphid colonized sorghum plants throughout much of the state and a large area throughout the South in 2014 (see map).

In 2014 the grain sorghum feeding biotype of sugarcane aphid moved from Texas into Oklahoma. Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Florida, so other states may benefit from the Task Force’s research.

One Response

  1. Hello,

    Do I have your permission to use your sugarcane aphid distribution map in an identification deck that will be distributed at a Florida First Detector workshop?



    Jennifer Carr, MDP

    Lab Manager
    Biosecurity Research & Extension
    Department of Entomology and Nematology
    University of Florida, IFAS
    Steinmetz Building
    970 Natural Area Drive
    P.O. Box 110620
    Gainesville, FL 32611
    Cell: 352-215-0071
    Email: jennster@ufl.edu

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