Zenzele Ndebele | February 11, 2013
Micha Ndlovu’s maize was beginning to recover from a dry spell when another disaster struck. This time, it was a swarm of armyworms. Mr. Ndlovu is still in disbelief. He says, “These creatures can destroy the whole field in two days.”
Armyworms are black caterpillars that feed on crops and other plants. As their name suggests, they move in large groups. They can quickly destroy an entire field, then move on to the next. Armyworms are attacking crops in many parts of southern Africa, including Zimbabwe, Zambia, and South Africa. The pest has been reported in five of Zimbabwe’s farming provinces, destroying hundreds of hectares of maize.
Mr. Ndlovu farms in the Matabeleland North province of Zimbabwe. It’s one of the areas worst affected by armyworms. Davison Masendeke is a government extension officer for the area. He says armyworms are not a new pest in Zimbabwe. But this year’s outbreak is the worst in a decade.
Extension workers are trying to manage the pest by visiting affected areas and supplying farmers with chemical pesticides.
Some farmers think the armyworm invasion is a bad omen. Mr. Ndlovu sees it as a sign that the spirits of his ancestors are unhappy and need to be appeased with a ceremony. He adds, “This is how our grandfathers used to deal with this problem and sometimes I don’t believe in this modern way of spraying chemicals.”
Extension officers are concerned that such beliefs will discourage people from using pesticides to manage armyworms. Mr. Masendeke advises farmers to report suspected armyworm outbreaks to any government department, including the police or agricultural extension.
In Zambia, the National Farmers Union is encouraging farmers to be vigilant. Calvin Kaleyi is a spokesperson for the union. He urges farmers to scout for armyworms in their crops and grazing lands. Armyworms travel at night. To detect armyworms as early as possible, farmers should inspect fields in the evening and again in the early morning.
Mr. Kaleyi says that farmers who can afford pesticides should visit agro-dealers to buy the correct chemicals. The Zambia National Farmers Union is calling on the government to provide farmers with money for these pesticides.
There is also a chemical-free approach to managing armyworms. Farmers can build small, steep trenches around their fields. Traveling armyworms will be trapped in the trenches, where farmers can kill the pests.
Officials in South Arica warn that livestock farmers should also be vigilant. Animals can become sick or die if they graze in an area infested by armyworms. Livestock should also be kept away from fields that have been sprayed with pesticides.
Armyworms have recently been spotted in the North West province of South Africa. In Zimbabwe, researchers believe the pest may spread further north.
It’s a discouraging time for farmers affected by the outbreak. Mr. Ndlovu laments: “We really don’t know what to do now … the past two years we faced a serious drought and this year we are expecting good rains, but the outbreak of armyworms will leave us with nothing.”