Begin Scouting for Common Stalk Borers in Corn

Begin Scouting for Common Stalk Borers in Corn

REVISED: May 31, 2023 (originally published May 22, 2015)

Scouting in corn should begin now in southeastern Nebraska for common stalk borer larvae. Stalk borers are an occasional pest of corn in Nebraska. Stalk borer damage in corn commonly is confined to plants in the first few rows near field margins, fence rows, grass terraces and waterways. In addition to attacking corn, stalk borers attack over 100 other species of plants, including ornamentals, garden vegetables, broadleaf weeds, and grasses. They may feed on soybeans as well, but they are not an economically important pest of soybeans.

Understanding the common stalk borer life cycle and behavior is critical to selecting management practices to reduce damage in corn.

Stalk Borer Life Cycle

Female stalk borer moths lay their eggs primarily on grasses such as smooth brome or ragweed in late summer and early fall. Small grains (rye or wheat) planted as a cover crop may also be a potential egg laying site. Egg-laying sites usually are in fence rows, terraces, and waterways, but can be found throughout a field if preferred hosts are available. Eggs overwinter and hatch in late April or early May. Larvae bore into the stalks of grasses or other hosts such as ragweed and begin feeding. As they become larger or if the plants are mowed, terminated mechanically or burned down with herbicides, the stalk borers migrate into adjacent corn plants to complete their development. In some cases, if an appropriate weed host is not available when eggs hatch, stalk borers may begin feeding directly on corn.

Corn between the two- and eight-leaf stages can be attacked by the migrating stalk borer larvae. Larvae develop through seven to 10 instars, or stages, in about 10 weeks. Pupation occurs in the soil and moths emerge in August, September and early October. There is a single generation each year.

Stalk Borer Identification

Common stalk borer larvae are distinctive in appearance. Young larvae (Figure 1a) are brownish-purple and have three prominent longitudinal white stripes at the front and rear ends of the body. The stripes are interrupted at mid-body by a solid dark purple to black area on the third thoracic segment and first three abdominal segments. Fully grown larvae do not have these characteristic markings and are uniformly dirty gray (Figure 1b). Fully grown larvae can be 1 1/2 to 2 inches long.

Mature stalk borer larva
Figure 1a. Young stalk borer larva.
Mature stalk borer larva
Figure 1b. Mature stalk borer larva.

Stalk Borer Damage

Stalk borer larvae injure corn plants typically in late May-June. They feed on leaves in the whorl and then tunnel into the stalk, or they burrow into the base of the plant and tunnel up through the center of the stalk. Leaf feeding alone does not cause economic damage.

Dead heart damage to corn caused by stalk borer
Figure 2. Stalk borer damage sometimes called "dead heart." When the feeding injury to the central part of the plant is severe enough, the whorl will appear dead while the outer leaves will be green and apparently healthy.

Tunneling into the stalk can result in deformed or stunted plants that may not produce an ear. Severely damaged plants can die. Plants attacked at earlier growth stages tend to be more severely injured. A single stalk borer larva may attack more than one plant if the first plant does not support the larva as it increases in size.

Damage caused by feeding in the whorl will first appear as irregular rows of holes in the unfolding leaves. These irregular rows of holes will be much larger and more ragged than those caused by whorl-feeding of first generation European corn borer larvae. In severe cases an infested plant will have a very ragged appearance, with abnormal growth habits such as twisting, bending over, or stunting. If the feeding injury to the central part of the plant is severe enough, the whorl will appear dead while the outer leaves will be green and apparently healthy. This condition is commonly called "dead heart."


Any weed control method that helps eliminate grasses will reduce the number of potential stalk borer egg-laying sites, reducing the probability of stalk borer damage the next year. Control of grassy weeds is important to keep stalk borer problems from increasing year to year.

Planting date may have some influence on the degree of injury from common stalk borers. Since smaller plants are more heavily damaged, earlier planting may allow corn to outgrow the most severe damage.

Using GDDs to Predict Development

Stalk borer hatch and migration to new hosts can be predicted using degree days (DD). Based on research at Iowa State University, stalk borer egg hatch begins at about 575 DD and ends at 750 DD (Table 1). Begin scouting corn when 1,300-1,400 DD have accumulated. This corresponds with the beginning of larvae moving out of grassy hosts. Determine the need for treatment when 1,400-1,700 DD have accumulated.

This week's map (Figure 3) indicates that stalk borer larvae are beginning to move into corn in some areas of the state and scouting should begin when 1,300-1,400 degree days have accumulated. Make management decisions in corn when 1,400-1,700 degree days have accumulated.

Updated degree day data are available from the Iowa State University mesonet.

Table 1. Degree day requirements for common stalk borer development and management (41°F base).
Degree day accumulation from Jan. 1Event (Egg and Larva Development)
575 Egg hatch begins
750 Egg hatch complete
1,400 10% of larvae move out of grasses
1,700 50% of larvae move out of grasses
Event (Pest Control)
1,300-1,400 Begin scouting grassy field borders and corn
1,400-1,700 Make insecticide treatment decision in corn
map of accumulated degree days
Figure 3. Accumulated degree days from Jan. 1 to June 7, 2023, using a 41°F base. (Source: Iowa Environmental Mesonet)

Sampling and Economic Injury Levels

Check corn plants bordering grassy areas to determine the percentage of plants with stalk borer injury when 1,300-1,400 degree days (41°F base) have accumulated since Jan. 1 (Figure 3). Examine several sets of 10 plants. Look for feeding damage and dissect damaged plants to see if live larvae are present. If weedy grasses were common throughout the field in the previous year, the whole field may need to be scouted for common stalk borers. Use the information in Table 2 to determine the economic injury level.

Table 2. Economic injury levels (expressed as a percentage of infested plants with stalk borers in whorl) for corn at $3/bu and $4/bu value and expected yield levels
$3/bu $4/bu
Leaf stage150 bu/A175 bu/A200 bu/A225 bu/ALeaf stage150 bu/A175 bu/A200 bu/A225 bu/A
1 5.8 4.9 4.3 3.8 1 4.3 3.7 2.2 2.9
2 7.1 6 5.3 4.7 2 5.3 4.5 4 3.5
3 9.3 8 7 6.2 3 7 6 5.3 4.7
4 9.9 8.5 7.4 6.6 4 7.4 6.4 5.6 5
5 11.3 9.7 8.5 7.6 5 8.5 7.3 6.4 5.7
6 19.8 17 14.9 13.2 6 14.9 12.8 11.2 9.9
7 54.7 46.9 41.1 36.5 7 41.1 35.2 30.8 27.4


To be effective, insecticides must be applied before common stalk borer larvae have entered the stalk. In cases where stalk borers begin feeding on grassy weeds or other vegetation in field edges, control is most effective if timed between 1,400 and 1,700 degree days (base 41°F), which corresponds to the first half of the period when stalk borers are migrating from weedy hosts into corn. If the infestation is restricted to the field margin, use a border treatment.

Insecticides may be mixed with fast-acting herbicides being used to burn down early season weeds, or applied several days after use of slower-acting herbicides. Check the label for compatibility of different insecticide and herbicide mixtures.

A variety of foliar insecticides are effective against common stalk borers in corn. See the 2023 Guide for Weed, Disease, and Insect Management in Nebraska (EC130) with insecticide and fungicide Information or the insecticide label information for labeled insecticides, their rates, and restrictions.

Several available Bt corn hybrids provide control or suppression of common stalk borer larvae. The label term "suppression" indicates that a lower level of mortality is expected than for insects labeled for control. (See Handy Bt Trait Table for a list of available hybrids.)


For more information on stalk borer biology and management, see Stalk Borer Ecology and Integrated Pest Management in Corn, a 2010 article by Marlin Rice and Paula Davis in the Journal of Integrated Pest Management.

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