To defeat an enemy, know its lifestyle, where it works and its secret hiding places. That’s what researchers have done in a 10-year battle against two insects that bore into grassy crops such as rice, sugarcane, sorghum and corn.

“I think we’re winning the battle,” said Dr. Mo Way, Texas AgriLife Research entomologist in Beaumont. “But it’s a continuing battle, so that is why the research is needed.”

Way and a colleague, Dr. Gene Reagan, professor of entomology at Louisiana State University, joined forces a decade ago – though the Mexican rice borer was found only partly across the Texas rice belt and not in neighboring Louisiana – in hopes of getting ahead of the damaging, yield-reducing pest. Several discoveries from their work – showcased at a site visit with farmers and commodity leaders in late September – can be summed up: these once dreaded bugs are not as “boring” as when they first entered Texas from Mexico in 1980.

And that’s a good thing because, as Way and Reagan put in the proceedings from their 10th annual site visit, “the Mexican rice borer is the most destructive insect pest of sugarcane in North America” and can cause “as much as a 50-percent yield loss in commercial Texas rice fields.”

Since 1980, the Mexican rice borer has advanced about 12 miles a year through Texas and on into Louisiana where it now exists in five of that state’s parishes. Along the way, it bored into sugarcane, sorghum, rice and corn in devastating proportions. “I remember going down to the Rio Grande Valley in 1981 or 82 and seeing sugarcane fields that were just totally brown at the end of the summer, and it didn’t make any sense,” Reagan said.  “We’d go in the field and start cutting up stalks, and we’d get 20 to 30 larvae of the Mexican rice borer in one stalk.”

Way and Reagan knew that the pest travels as a moth and lays its eggs on leaves. The eggs hatch and larvae dig into the stalk to develop as caterpillars before feasting their way through the grassy crops common along the Gulf Coast. So the two researchers went to the entomological equivalent of a war room – the rice and sugarcane trial fields around Beaumont – and also strung a line of snares across the region to trap and mark the pest’s advance.