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Watch Out For Army Fall Worms

by Wangah Wanyama
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Farmers have been cautioned to be on the alert about the African Armyworm or fall armyworm on their farms after a recent outbreak in Tanzania, a renowned breeding area for the pest.

This caution was made by Ephrance Tumuboine, the assistant commissioner in the department of crop protection in the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries during a three-day training of trainers on community based African Armyworm monitoring, forecasting and early warning at the Mukono Zonal Research and Development Institute (MUZARDI) from January 29th to 31st, 2024.

According to Tumuboine, there have been reports of the outbreak of armyworm in Tanzania which is known as the breeding area after which they spread to Kenya, Uganda and other countries.

“Such reports and the weather patterns of both wet and warm conditions that favour the multiplication and spread of African Armyworm (AAW), call for vigilance such that we are not caught unaware as it was the last evasion in 2022,” she explains.

The training to equip farmers with knowledge they can use to alert the concerned authorities was organized by Desert Locust Control Organisation for Eastern Africa (DLCO-EA), according to the country manager, Evarist Magara. Other partners include the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries with support from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

Creating surveillance systems

Fighting against the AAW is one of the mandates of the DLCO-EA and the organisation has come in to support member countries in the efficient surveillance for timely reporting and subsequent control of the pest before extensive plant damage is done.

Therefore, the DLCO-EA is collaborating on this project to ensure that community based African armyworm surveillance systems are revitalized in the region and in Uganda particularly.

“It is very timely to ensure that the notorious pest is detected in time and then controlled effectively. The workshop is to train sub county agriculture extension agents that will subsequently train the community-based forecasters,” he says.

“We invited two agricultural officials from 10 districts that were severely affected during the previous attack to equip them with knowledge, update them about AAW and equipment they will use to forecast and report about AAW,” he said.

He explains that the trained officials are to be equipped with the ecology, biology and management knowledge and skills for AAW and are expected to select two farmers from 10 villages per district that will also be equipped with African Armyworm pheromone trap, a rain gauge and record books.

The farmers are expected to monitor the traps and report to the agriculture officials for interpretation, but also record the rainfall to determine when conditions are favourable for their multiplication, Tumuboine says.

“There are solitary African Armyworms living in isolation that can easily produce, multiply and start moving as they eat any crop in their path. Therefore, we want to use these selected farmers as monitors to alert the ministry in good time for action to be taken,” she says.

The strategy to manage the pest also includes re-establishment of community-based African armyworm forecasting and control through a technical cooperation project running for 12 months. Magara says the project is being implemented by DLCO-EA. It involves training the agriculture ministry plant protection officers, who will cascade the skills to sub-county extension agents chosen from target districts.

The project is being piloted in 10 districts that normally record high incidences of the pest during the outbreaks including Tororo, Iganga, Luwero, Masindi, Kiryandongo, Kasese, Liora, Kiruhura, Kumi, Pader.  

Armyworm attacks

In April 2022 there was an outbreak that spread to over 40 districts by June 2022, with serious damages recorded on cereal crops, especially maize.

Last year there was an outbreak during the months of January to April, but on a small scale. “According to the patterns, Uganda tends to have the AAW outbreaks between January and April,” Magara explains.

Previous outbreak patterns in Uganda, Magara says point it to becoming an annual occurrence that has been catching both the ministry and farmers off guard, resulting in significant crop and pasture damages and losses estimated at 70%.

What you need to know about the African armyworm

The African armyworm is a highly destructive pest that can feed on over 80 plant species with cereals (maize and sorghum) being more susceptible. However, in the last outbreak; millet, wheat, sorghum sugarcane, rice, pasture like napier grass, Rhodes grass across most parts of the country.

Moths can move 100km in just one night according to the wind direction and caterpillars can destroy an acre in that time period.

Using the pheromone armyworm traps, farmers will be able to determine the occurrence of the moths in the area which will be an indication that they could have laid eggs that will hatch into larvae in 30 days.

Armyworm moths are active during the evening, feeding on nectar, mating and searching for ovipositional sites. Eggs are deposited in rows or clusters on the lower leaves of grasses or at the base of plants. Eggs hatch in 1-2 weeks. Newly hatched larvae are pale green and move in looping motion.

Its lifecycle includes eggs that hatch between 1-2 weeks, larvae that have six instars for 13-14 days, pupae 7-8 days and back to adult moth 1-21 days.

Signs of AAW

Tuboine explains that the caterpillar grows to a length of approximately 24mm with a black appearance and off-white longitudinal stripes. It has a characteristic white V-shaped mark in the head capsule.

“Small brown garden patches are often the first clue of AAW problems. The pests may leave grass blades ragged or chew just a green layer, creating a transparent windowpane look. The grass may shear to the ground, leaving bare spots in your garden,” she says.

She adds that AAW moth is a night flying migratory, with its larva stage (caterpillar) being the most destructive stage by feeding on various crops resulting in economic damage that can result in famine and loss of incomes.

Fighting AAW

During the 2022 invasion, farmers used to use local concoctions like powder detergent, hot pepper, ash and bleach to spray and kill these pests. On the other hand, Tumuboine says that there are a number of pesticides approved by the ministry of agriculture which are effective if you spray direct to the pest.

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