Radio Times/1923/10/19/Insects and the World's Cotton

Insects and the World's Cotton.

A Talk Broadcast from London by Professor H. M. Lefroy F.Z.S.

THIS is a talk about insects really, and especially about the way insects are going to decide for us, one of our most important questions—what we are all to wear. Most of the people of the word wear cotton—some. particularly in cold climates, wear wool, a few wear silk, a lot wear artificial silk and very few wear linen—which is flax. But by far the cheapest, simplest and most generally used fibre has been cotton.

Cotton is produced an a frizzy coating to the seed of the cotton plant[1]. Nature made the cotton plant to produce seeds in a fruit called "the boll." So that when the seeds were ripe, each seed had round it a white cloud of fibres, which we call "cotton wool," whereby the wind could carry the seed away from the plant to fresh soil. But man grows cotton to use the fibre, which he removes from the seed and spins, making therefrom a continuous thread which he can weave into cloth. So from the cotton wool round the seed of the cotton plant comes the cotton of man's use, and the clothes that the majority of people on this earth wear.

Now, we are all taught that Man is the dominant creation of this earth; and we all know how important to us all are our clothes. But here come insects, which to some people are insignificant, but which are far more highly developed than man, and these insects, quite incidentally and without intent to hurt man, merely in pursuit of their own aims and success, are going seriously to affect man in what he wears.

black and white photograph of an adult weevil
The Cotton Boll Weevil.
The little insect that is causing so much damage to the cotton industry.

Most people wear cotton; the production in the world of cotton is round about 20 million bales each of 400 pounds. Of this, America produces 11 millions, India about five, China about two, Egypt one and the rest of the world one.

A Dreadful Pest

Now of this cotton, not all can be used for fine spinning. Some cottons have a fibre so short that it will not make fine thread. All cottons really separate into two groups: the cottons over an inch long, which they use in America and Lancashire for making fine cloth, and the shorter cottons less than an inch long, which are spun and woven abroad into coarse cloths or are mixed with other fibres. Mostly, the world wants and uses long cotton, and nearly all this comes from America. America is the largest cotton-producing country in the world, and cotton is the main crop over the whole of the Southern States such as Texas, Louisiana, Carolina, Georgia, Alabama. This cotton is all long cotton, and the Lancashire mills depend almost entirely on its production for their manufactured goods. But it is now a question how much cotton is going to be grown in America at all. An insect called the boll weevil[2] is the factor in that question. It destroys so much of the crop that it is becoming hardly worth while to grow cotton at all.

The boll weevil is a small brown insect, about the size of a dried pea, which came into Mexico from South America, then spread into the United States, and is now established all over the cotton-growing areas. This little weevil flies and walks among the cotton plants. The female with her long beak eats a hole into the green fruit or "boll" of the cotton plant And then lays an egg in the hole. This egg hatches into a soft white grub, which eats its way further into the boll, so that it can feed on the developing seeds.

Another Little Terror.

The grub destroys the seeds, and also the developing cotton. When the boll opens, instead of thee being a large, fluffy mass of cotton, there is only a mass of black and eaten ends—nothing that can be picked and used. So the cotton grower has to plough his land, sow his seed, keep the land weeded, look after the crop, pay his rates, tithes, taxes, labourers, etc., to find, when his crop is picked, that the boll weevil has taken off a large proportion of it. This proportion has now become so big that the farmers in America will not grow cotton. The boll weevil literally takes up to one-third of the crop, while the grower still has all the expenses of growing the full crop. The production of cotton in America this year is about 12 million bales, but it has become a serious consideration whether the American grower will continue under these circumstances.

Besides America, cotton is also grown in China, Egypt, India, Russia and other countries, to a total of some seven to eight million bales. Can they increase that amount an additional 12 million bales to make up for America? They cannot. For in practically all parts of the world is another insect as voracious as the boll weevil of America. This is known as the pink boll worm[3]; it is a caterpillar hatching from an egg laid by a moth on the boll. The caterpillar, like the boll weevil, also eats the seed of the boll, destroys the fibre and prevents the cotton being formed.

Here we have two small, trifling, insignificant insects holding up one of the world's greatest industries and destroying something like one-third of the world's crop of cotton—i.e., eight to ten million bales. You will ask why does not humanity deal with the insects? The reasons why insects are not controlled is that the development of insects is better organized than that of man—more successful because Nature runs them and does not run man.

Arsenic No Solution.

In America they have found one way of poisoning the boll weevil with arsenic. It requires 30lbs. of this to poison one acre of cotton plants; it costs from forty to fifty shillings an acre to do this; but there are 36,000,000 acres of cotton in America, so that 1,080,000,000lbs. (over 500,000 tons) of arsenic preparation would be required. But it only pays at present to apply this method on one-fifth of the acreage. as there is not enough arsenic, produced in the world to enable them to buy it cheap enough to apply all over. So that this is no solution of the problem. The next ten years will show whether man will control the insect, or whether the insect will devour our cotton and send us to seek substitutes. I think the insect will win!


  1. Gossypium sp. (Wikisource contributor note)
  2. Anthonomus grandis. (Wikisource contributor note)
  3. Pectinophora gossypiella (Wikisource contributor note)

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925.


The author died in 1925, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.