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The boll weevil (Anthonomus grandis) is a beetle measuring an average length of six millimeters, which feeds on cotton buds and flowers. Thought to be native to Central America, it migrated into the US from Mexico in the late 18th century and had infested all US cotton-growing areas by the 1920s, devastating the industry and the people working in the American south. During the late 20th century it became a serious pest in South America as well. Since 1978, the Boll Weevil Eradication Program in the US has allowed full-scale cultivation to resume in many regions.
The insect crossed the Rio Grande near Brownsville, Texas to enter the United States from Mexico in 1892 and reached southeastern Alabama in 1915. By the mid 1920s it had entered all cotton growing regions in the US, travelling 40 to 160 miles per year. It remains the most destructive cotton pest in North America. Mississippi State University has estimated that since the boll weevil entered the United States it has cost US cotton producers about $13 billion, and in recent times about $300 million per year.
Following World War II the development of new pesticides such as DDT enabled US farmers to again grow cotton as an economic crop, but at great expense and environmental risk. In 1978 a test was conducted in North Carolina to determine feasibility of eradicating the weevil from the growing areas. Based on the success of this, area-wide programs were begun in the 1980s to eradicate the insect from whole regions. These are based on cooperative effort by all growers together with the assistance of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The program has been successful in eradicating weevils from Virginia and the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, south Alabama, California, and Arizona. Efforts are ongoing to eradicate the weevil from the rest of the United States. Continued success is also based on prohibition of unauthorized cotton growing, outside of the program, and constant monitoring for any recurring outbreaks.
Entomologists at Texas A&M have pointed to the spread of fire ants as a factor in the weevil's population decline.