Fall armyworm

Fall armyworm may opportunistically target avocado

While avocados aren’t the main target of the fall armyworm, it would seem the new pest might attack avocado trees if they happen to be near an area of high infestation, but researchers remain confident it will not be a significant issue for the Australian industry.

Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries researcher Dr Ian Newton says there has been one report of fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) in avocados on the Atherton Tablelands, in early 2021.

“However, we are pretty sure this is what we refer to as a ‘spill-over’ event,” Dr Newton says.

“The fall armyworm’s main host crop is corn (and perhaps some grasses/weeds), where it will breed-up in huge densities over the course of the growing season.

“Under these densities, other neighbouring crops will sometimes get attacked to some extent.”

The fall armyworm moth Fall armyworm moth
The fall armyworm moth. The moth is 32-40mm from wing tip to wing tip, with a brown or grey forewing, and white hind wing. Males have more patterns with a distinct white spot on forewings. Image (wing spread): Robert J. Bauernfeind, Kansas State University, Bugwood.org. Image (wings closed): William Lambert, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org.


Dr Newton says the instance on the Atherton Tablelands involves an orchard “very close” to very heavily infested maize and Rhodes grass.

“We still believe the avocado is not a true host of fall armyworm, and that these “spill-over” cases are probably somewhat rare,” he says.

“On the Atherton Tablelands, we are seeing huge numbers of fall armyworm in corn/maize in areas where there are a lot of avocados in the general area, yet this is the only case of fall armyworm in avocados that has been reported.

“I think it’s unlikely to cause significant issues for avocado growers.”

Top tips for avocado growers

If fall armyworm does become established in your area and your orchard borders broadacre (especially corn or maize) or vegetable crops, the top tip is to continuously monitor, especially in the rows closest to the neighbouring crops.

However, keep in mind that the fall armyworm moth is capable of easily travelling large distances, so it isn’t only the exterior or your orchard that will need monitoring.

If you have grassed areas, these should also be monitored. Overseas, fall armyworm is known to attack Johnson grass, Rhodes grass, bent grasses, digit or finger grasses, couch grass, winter grass and panic grass. (More on pastures here.)

You can find factsheets for a range of crops (not avocados) and ID guides (including larvae and symptoms) via the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (QDAF) here.

Apart from the larvae and moths, you are looking for leaf damage, including pinholes, windowing, and tattered leaf margins. For a full list (and video) visit this QDAF page.

Fall armyworm larvae Fall armyworm larvae
Fall armyworm larvae. The close up shows the inverted “Y” on the head, used for identification. The larvae is a light green to brown in colour, with white lengthwise lines and dark spots with spines develop as larvae mature. There is a distinctive pattern of four spots on second to last body segment and an inverted “Y” shape pattern on its head. When newly hatched, they are about 1.7mm, eventually reaching a length of about 34mm. Image (whole caterpillar): Russ Ottens, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org. Image (close up): Steve L. Brown, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org.

Available treatment options

Hort Innovation, utilising grower levies from across horticulture, has worked with the other research and development corporations, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority and chemical registrants on the response.

If it becomes necessary, you can download a permit for Chlorantraniliprole here. This minor use permit is for fall armyworm in avocados and blueberries.

Upcoming treatment options

Researchers are exploring two potential future treatment options, one a virus used successfully overseas and the other an Australian native fungus.

Dr Newton told the ABC he has been investigating the effectiveness of a naturally-occurring fungus that eats the grub from the inside out.

However, he warns it’s unlikely the pest will ever be eradicated completely.

“The fungus is not going to be a silver bullet but these biological options would be a good tool because they are very specific and only kill the pest, not the beneficial insects including the pollinators,” he told the ABC.

As for the virus product from overseas, Dr Newton told the ABC the Federal Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment had approved the importation of the biopesticide, Fawligen, a naturally occurring caterpillar virus that specifically targets fall armyworm.

“The product needs to be registered in Australia and, to do that, we need to prove that it works and is safe, so that is going to take some time.”

Research starting

On 22 March 2021, Hort Innovation announced it had funded a new project – Identifying potential parasitoids of the fall armyworm, Spodoptera frugiperda, and the risk to Australian horticulture (MT19015). Researchers will examine potential parasitoids of fall armyworm and deliver extension materials to growers on how to effectively manage the pest. The research team will identify parasitoid species present in horticultural crops and provide recommendations on potential candidates for future biological control of fall armyworm, as well as local information on established locations, host range, infestation levels on horticultural crops and damage patterns.

Further information can be found on the Hort Innovation website here.

Pest risk

Fall armyworm caterpillars eat more than 350 different plants, including corn, sugarcane, rice and many vegetable and fruit crops. (If you are interested in checking the full list, it’s available at CABI.) Crops can be ruined almost overnight without control measures when population levels are high.

It was first detected on the Torres Strait islands of Saibai and Erub in January 2020. Since then, it has been found in North and Central Queensland, the Northern Territory, New South Wales, and while it was first found in northern Western Australia, it has recently been found near Gingin (February 2021).

the eggs of the fall armyworm
The eggs of the fall armyworm can be seen here on a cotton leaf. The eggs are a pale yellow, and less than 0.5mm in size. There are 100-200 eggs in a “mass” and this is covered in a pale mould-like furry substance. Image: Phillip Roberts, University of Georgia, Bugwood.org.

What should I do?

The Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries is the lead agency in the national response. If you think you’ve seen fall armyworm, call QDAF on 13 25 23. For more information, contact the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries on 13 25 23 or visit www.daf.qld.gov.au.

Western Australia

Visit the DPIRD Agriculture & Food page here. General enquiries or suspect reports can be made to PaDIS by calling +61 (0)8 9368 3080 or email padis@dpird.wa.gov.au. WA industry enquiries can be directed to Helen Spafford, Senior Research Scientist +61 (0)8 9166 4074.

New South Wales

Visit the NSW DPI page here. Report anything unusual to 1800 084 881.

Northern Territory

Visit the NT Government page here. To find out about control measures, call 08 8999 2258 or email insectinfo@nt.gov.au and for advice on pesticide use, call 08 8999 2344 or email chemicals@nt.gov.au.

More information

In the news

ABC Rural published this piece about fall armyworm damage on 27 February, 2021. You can watch the ABC Landline story here.

This article was provided for the Guacamole of 5 March 2021.

Author: Lisa Yorkston
Date Published: 04/03/2021