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How Will a Mild Winter Affect Sunflower Insects?

Saturday, April 15, 2006
filed under: Insects

It’s possible that warmer temperatures would enable more sunflower insects to successfully overwinter, but there is no way of predicting risk going into and during the growing season, since so many factors can still affect insect populations, according to Jan Knodel, extension entomologist at North Dakota State University.

She points out that factors such as insulating snow cover and field residue, temperature and moisture in the spring and early summer, as well as natural predators such as disease and parasitic insects, can all affect insect populations.

Natural enemies of the sunflower stem weevil, for example, include parasitic wasps that attack both the egg and larval stage. Cool, wet weather in the spring can wreak havoc on developing grasshopper populations. Conversely, good soil moisture in the month of June promotes survival and emergence of the sunflower midge. Cool weather that delays crop emergence increases the potential for injury from early-season seed damaging insects, such as wireworms. And it goes without saying that weather and other factors that affect insects can vary widely from one side of the county to another.

Thus, the best advice is to keep your eye on sunflower insect developments this growing season, with particular attention to insects and fields that were problem areas last year. Scout fields, and if numbers reach economic thresholds, treat accordingly.

Much of the information about the following insects that can be a problem in sunflower is courtesy of the North Dakota State University Extension Service and Kansas State University. Labeled products, product use rates, and application restrictions may vary by state. Some treatment products are restricted-use insecticides. All products should be used with close adherence to label instructions.


Scouting: Most cutworm damage occurs when plants are in the early stage of development. Damage consists of young plants chewed off slightly below or at ground level. Some cutworm feeding injury may occur on foliage. Cutworms primarily feed at night. When checking fields for cutworms during the day, dig down into soil an inch or two around recently damaged plants and look for the gray to gray-brown larva.

Keep in mind that while the seed treatment product Cruiser (a.i. thiamethoxam) has demonstrated success in controlling early-season insects such as wireworms and flea beetles, the product shouldn’t be expected to control insects (or diseases, in the case of the DM formulation) beyond those listed on the product label. Cutworms are not listed on the Cruiser label. Some have observed that Cruiser may help protect plants from cutworms early in the season. But the product shouldn’t be expected to offer complete control, especially as the growing season progresses, since it is not labeled for cutworms.

A simple method of scouting cutworms to consider: Mix the labeled rate of an insecticide for cutworms in an ATV-mounted sprayer. Three or four days after planting, make a diagonal spray pass across a sunflower field. Come back about an hour before sunset and again before sunrise to check dead cutworms in the treatment path. Scout early after the sample spray to get a good count.

Treatment: Warranted when one cutworm or more is found per square foot or if there is a 25 to 30% stand reduction.


Scouting: Wireworms join cutworms as crop pests that growers should watch for early in the growing season, particularly in a no-till system. Wireworms have a longer life cycle than cutworms, and usually feed on roots and germinating seedlings below ground. Wireworms prefer more moist, cooler soil temperatures (50-55 degrees F) and move deeper into the soil if soil gets too dry and when soil temperatures become too hot (>80 F).

Treatment: Cruiser is currently the only insecticide seed treatment registered for wireworm in sunflower that provides seedling protection. Some producers who have applied Furadan 4F (Carbofuran) at planting for treating early-season insects have observed wireworm control. The systemic product can be mixed with water or liquid fertilizer, and producers have observed that applying it in-furrow with the seed doesn’t hurt seed germination or seedling development.

Palestriped flea beetles

Scouting: Adults are very small, about 3/16 of an inch long, dark brown to black in color, with two white stripes down its back. Like any flea beetle species, the palestriped flea beetle has enlarged hind legs enabling them to jump from plant to plant. Adults overwinter on the field under soil and plant debris. They then resume feeding in the spring of the following year. These overwintered beetles will then lay eggs in the soil near the base of host plants. Grubs feed on plant roots transform into pupae, then adult flea beetles in the summer. There is only one generation per year. Flea beetles produce a characteristic injury known as ‘shot-holing.’ The adults chew many small holes or pits in the leaves, which make them look as if they have been damaged by fine buckshot. Young plants and seedlings are particularly susceptible.

Treatment: The insecticide seed treatment Cruiser has demonstrated control of the palestriped flea beetle.

Colorado State University online fact sheet on flea beetles:

Stem Weevils

Scouting: The sunflower stem weevil is 3/16 inches in length, and grayish-brown with varying shaped white spots on the wing covers. Weevils emerge in mid-to-late May in the High Plains, and June in the Northern Plains. Eggs are deposited in epidermal tissue of the stem. Controls, directed at the adults to minimize egg laying, should be initiated about when plants are at the six to eight leaf stage. When about 25 to 30 or more larvae per stalk, it can become weakened, with breakage most likely to occur during drought stress or high winds.

Scouting is difficult due to their size, coloration, and habit of “playing dead.” NDSU advises examining five plants each at five locations and keep record of the number of weevils found. Approach plants carefully to avoid alarming the weevils, causing them to drop to the ground. Scout from late June to mid-July.

Treatment: Treat for sunflower stem weevils when scouting determines that an average of one adult per three plants is found.

Colorado State University stem weevil fact sheet:

Longhorned Beetle (Dectes or Soybean Stem Borer)

Scouting: The bluish gray adult stem borer is about 5/8 inches long with long banded antennae. In soybeans, adults lay eggs during July and August, and larvae tunnel through stems until September. Even if an insecticide for control was available (no sunflower insecticide labels currently include this insect), treatment would be difficult due to prolonged emergence of the adults. Early research indicates that timely harvest will help prevent lodging due to this insect. Avoid rotating soybeans after sunflower where this insect has been a problem. See fact sheet online:

Banded Sunflower Moth

Scouting: Banded sunflower moths begin to emerge from the soil about mid July. Peak activity normally occurs about the last week of July or the first week of August. Moths fly from last year's field to the current year's field, congregating around field margins. The moths tend to move into sunflower fields during the bud stage, with a preference for the mid-bud stage. Eggs are laid on the back of the bud and the outside of bracts. Newly hatched larvae move from these sites to the face of the flower and begin feeding on bracts and florets.

Treatment: Consider an insecticide application when one moth is found for every two plants inspected. Because moths initially congregate around field margins prior to flowering, treatment of field margins can reduce the adult population.

Sunflower Moth

Scouting: A migratory insect that blows in from the south, this grayish tan moth moves into fields in early bloom, depositing eggs on the face of the flower, commonly at the base of newly opened florets. Damage is similar to that caused by the banded moth. The same monitoring strategies are recommended for sunflower moth as those for the banded moth. This insect traditionally does not move further north than Nebraska.

Treatment: Consider when one to two moths are found for every five plants inspected.

Sunflower Midge

Scouting: The midge is a small tan-colored fly, 3/32 inch in length. It emerges in early July, preferring to lay eggs on developing buds, one to two inches in diameter. The cream to yellowish-orange larvae feed on bract tissue at first and later on the flowers and seeds. When feeding is confined to the bracts, damage results in little economic loss. At higher populations, seed production is reduced or prevented. This type of injury appears as twisted and gnarled flowers. Often, infestations will be limited to field margins. When populations are large, damage may extend into the field and significant field losses may be observed. Good soil moisture in the month of June may enhance survival and emergence of midge. This insect is seldom seen in the High Plains states.

Management: There are no effective chemical controls currently recognized for this pest. The best management strategy is crop rotation. Rotate to crops other than sunflower in the vicinity of large infestations. Staggering planting dates to promote different budding periods between fields aids in reducing risk of damage to fields in the same geographic areas. Some hybrids may have greater midge tolerance than others – ask your seed dealer for guidance.

Red Seed Weevil

Scouting: Commonly begins to emerge in early July and can continue until mid-August, although actual dates can vary by latitude. It’s thus advised to time scoutings and treatments to plant development stages. For example, red seed weevil females need to feed on pollen before they lay eggs, so scouting should start at about R.5. Start counting adult seed weevils when the yellow ray petals are just beginning to show. Counts should continue until the economic threshold level has been reached or most plants have reached 70% pollen shed, when few seeds are still suitable for red seed weevil egg laying. At this point, fields should no longer be susceptible to damage. When sampling, use the X pattern and begin counting at least 70 to 100 feet into the field to avoid field margin effects. Count the number of weevils on five plants at each site for a total of 25 plants.

Treatment: Recommended plant stage for treatment is when three out of 10 plants are just beginning to shed pollen. For confection sunflower, treatment is recommended when one to two weevils are found per plant. For oil sunflower, the economic threshold can be calculated using the following formula:

Threshold (weevils per head) = Cost of insecticide treatment

(Market price x 21.5) (0.000022 x plant population + 0.18)

More treatment details online: (scroll down to ‘Sunflower Insects’ link, then go to sunflower seed weevil information)

Sunflower Beetle

Scouting: Sunflower beetles begin feeding shortly after they emerge from overwintering. Emergence starts mid-May (again, this can be earlier further south, and later further north). Most feeding by adults is concentrated on the true leaves. When beetles are numerous, young plants may be severely defoliated by adults, although most damage usually results from larval feeding. Adults quickly begin laying pale yellow eggs on stems and the underside of leaves. Eggs hatch in about eight days. The pale green humpbacked larvae begin feeding, eating holes throughout the leaf. Larvae do not feed during the day, resting in the plant tops where they are easily observed.

Treatment: Adults- Treatment is recommended when scouting determines that an average of one to two beetles per plant can be found throughout the field. Larvae- When an average of 10 to 15 larvae per plant are found, defoliation levels of 25 to 30% would be expected. Treatment is suggested when damage levels reach this point and most larvae are still 1/4 inch in size. When larvae become larger than this, most damage will already have occurred and little can be gained by treatment.

Lygus (Tarnished Plant Bug)

Scouting and treatment: Confection sunflower is susceptible to Lygus damage during flowering, from anthesis through seed hardening, resulting in kernel brown spot. Entomologists have found that populations of adult Lygus at levels of one insect per nine heads could result in economic loss to the producer through the reduction of seed quality. Lygus can be treated at the same time confection sunflower is treated for other insects, such as the seed weevil and banded sunflower moth. NDSU entomologists suggest two insecticide treatments for confection sunflower to adequately protect heads from insect feeding: One application at the onset of pollen shed, or about 10% bloom, followed by a second treatment seven days later.

Insect Info on the Internet

2006 N.D. Field Crop Insect Management Guide

NDSU Crop Insect Publications

North Dakota State University Entomology

(see link to ‘Crop and Pest Report’ May – August)

Kansas State University Entomology

2006 K-State Sunflower Management Bulletin

South Dakota State University Extension Entomology

University of Nebraska Insect Treatment Recommendations

University of Manitoba

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