Iowa Corn: Scout Fields for Stalk Borers

Common stalk borer. Photo: Adam Varenhorst, Iowa State University

Within the last week, I have heard about higher-than-normal stalk borer infestations along field margins compared to previous years. According to degree-day tracking of 2019, the caterpillars should be moving from overwintering hosts to corn throughout Iowa this week.

Tracking degree days is a useful tool to estimate when common stalk borer larvae begin moving into cornfields from their overwintering hosts. Foliar insecticide applications, if needed, are only effective when larvae are migrating and exposed. Start scouting corn for larvae when 1,300-1,400 degree days (base 41°F) have accumulated.

Much of Iowa has reached this important benchmark (Fig. 1), and therefore scouting for migrating larvae should begin now to make timely treatment decisions.

2019 degree day map for stalk borer.

Figure 1. Degree days accumulated (base 41°F) for stalk borer in Iowa (January 1 – June 16, 2019). Map courtesy of Iowa Environmental Mesonet, ISU Department of Agronomy. Click Image to Enlarge


Female moths prefer to lay eggs in weedy areas in August and September, so managing weeds (especially giant ragweed) in and around corn during that time will make those fields less attractive. Long-term management requires mowing grassy edges around field edges so that females will not lay eggs in that area during the fall. To prevent stand loss, scout and determine the percent of infested plants.

Consider applications at peak larval movement, or 1,400-1,700 degree days (base 41°F). The use of an economic threshold (Table 1), first developed by Iowa State University entomologist Larry Pedigo, will help determine justifiable insecticide treatments based on market value and plant stage. Young plants have a lower threshold because they are more easily killed by stalk borer larvae.

Economic threshold table for stalk borer.

Table 1. Economic thresholds (expressed as percent of infested plants with larvae in the whorl) for stalk borer in corn, based on market value, expected yield, and leaf stage. Click Image to Enlarge

Stalk borers tend to re-infest the same fields, so prioritize fields with a history of stalk borers for scouting first with extra attention to the field edges. Applying insecticides after larvae have entered the stalk is not effective. Instead, target foliar applications to larvae as they migrate from grasses to corn. Look for larvae inside the whorls to determine the number of plants infested.

AgFax Weed Solutions

The larvae are not highly mobile and typically only move into the first 4-6 rows of corn. Look for new leaves with irregular feeding holes or for small larvae resting inside the corn whorls. Larvae will excrete a considerable amount of frass pellets in the whorl or at the entry hole in the stalk. Young corn is particularly vulnerable to severe injury, but plants are unlikely to be killed once reaching V7.

Using burndown herbicides before corn planting can force stalk borers to move and infest emerging corn. If an insecticide is warranted based on stalk borer densities, the application must be well-timed to reach exposed larvae before they burrow into the stalk. Border treatments should be considered since the infestations are usually localized. Make sure to read the label and follow directions, especially if tank-mixing with herbicides, for optimal stalk borer control.


Stalk borer larvae have three pairs of true legs and four pairs of fleshy prolegs. The body is creamy white and dark purple with brown stripes. Often there is a creamy white stripe running down the back of the thorax and abdomen. A distinctive feature of stalk borer larvae is an orange head with two dark lateral stripes (Photo 1). The adults are dark grey and brown colored moths, with jagged white lines and two to three clusters of white spots (Photo 2).

Common stalk borer.

Photo 1. Common stalk borer larva. Photo credit Adam Varenhorst. Click Image to Enlarge

Adult common stalk borer.

Photo 2. Common stalk borer adult. Photo credit Adam Sisson. Click Image to Enlarge


Stalk borers have one generation annually in Iowa. Stalk borer eggs are laid on grasses and weeds in the fall and overwinter in this cold-hardy stage. Egg hatch typically occurs around April 19 – June 5, and about 50% of egg hatch happens at 494 degree days. Young larvae will feed on grasses and weeds until they outgrow the stem of the host plant. The number of larval molts is variable, depending on food quality, and ranges from seven to nine instars.

Migration to larger hosts begins around 1,300-1,400 degree days. Fully developed larvae drop to the soil to pupate. Approximately 50% of pupation happens at 2,746 degree days, with 50% adult emergence at 3,537 degree days. Peak adult flight occurs during the first two weeks of September.

Corn adjacent to grassy and weedy areas becomes a suitable food source for migrating larvae. The most susceptible corn growth stages for infestation are V1-V5 or about 2-24 inches in plant height. Larvae can defoliate leaves and cause non-economic injury. More often, larvae kill corn plants by entering the stalk and destroying the growing point (i.e., flagging or dead heart). A dead heart plant will have outer leaves that appear healthy, but the newest whorl leaves die and can cause barren plants.

Common stalk borer.

Photo 3. Stalk borer larvae can shred corn leaves and destroy the growing point.

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