Tropical sod webworm larvae are destructive pests of warm season turfgrasses in the southeastern U.S. especially in the fall. Commonly referred to as a worm, they are truly caterpillars, the larvae of a moth. Larval feeding damage reduces turfgrass aesthetics, vigor, photosynthesis and density, which is very evident on finer-bladed grasses such as bermudagrass and zoysiagrass. Feeding damage is possible on all grass types however. Adults, a dull brown colored moth about ¾ inch long, rest in sheltered and shrubby areas during the day and are active at dusk. Females deposit clusters of 10-35 eggs on the upper surface of grass blades. The eggs hatch in 3-4 days and develop from a 1 mm long caterpillar to one over 11 mm long through six instars within 21 to 47 days, depending on temperature. Larval feeding occurs at night, leaving the grass looking ragged, shortened and missing.
Control should be against damaging larvae, not the flying moths. However, insecticidal soap applications to moth harboring areas can reduce re-population frequency. Soil-drenching soap flushes can be used to find the caterpillars, especially in dry and hot grass areas. Bacterial-based insecticides, such as Bt, Bacillus thuringiensis var. kurstaki or Spinosad, will control sod webworm caterpillars without impacting beneficial species as long as they are applied with each flush of grass growth.
Fall armyworms are also active when the weather turns cooler. They feed any time of the day or night, but are most active early in the morning or late in the evening. The 1 ½ inch long gray and white moth lays about 1,000 eggs in multiple masses on any vegetation. Two to 10 days later, the small caterpillar hatches and begins to grow to nearly 2 inches long over a two week period. The fall armyworm is easily recognized by its dark head marked with a distinct pale-colored inverted Y and the long black stripe running along each side of its body. These aggressive feeders “march” rapidly across grassed areas consuming every above-ground plant part. While bacterial-based insecticides will reduce the numbers, control of armyworms usually requires synthetic insecticides.
The good news is that grass “worms” can be controlled and the blades will grow back. The damage may be devastating to see, but usually not a permanent problem.