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Fear No Weevil ‒ 6 Lessons In Resourcefulness From The History Of The Boll Weevil

Written by: Heather Bryant, Ph.D., Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 

Wisdom exists all around us, as long as we’re open to discovering it and seeing it in the things we see and their past. Sometimes it’s unexpected.


As I spoke to my dad about the vision for my business, my aspirations for inspiring and empowering others, the challenges and potential. He sat up straight and exclaimed, “boll weevil!” To which I replied, “OK?” with a laugh. He explained that I’m like a boll weevil, stubborn and persistent, and told me about a statue made in honor of the boll weevil in the state we live in, Enterprise, Alabama. I was intrigued, so I dug into it as I often do with questions to answer a big “why.” I’d love to share my trip down the research rabbit hole and what I learned. Such trips are often a journey into insight and discovery.

Facts about the boll weevil:


1. There are around 60,000 species of known weevils in the world, most with no significant impact. However, the boll weevil had a substantial effect. Since arriving from Mexico in the late 19th century, boll weevils have been considered one of the most serious agricultural pests in the US. They were first spotted in Texas, and in 1903 the USDA referred to boll weevils as a “wave of evil.” By the 1920s, boll weevils blanketed the south, with their devastation to crops intensified by the Great Depression in the 1930s.


2. Boll weevils are named for eating and laying eggs in the cotton plant’s boll, which covers, hides, and protects the boll of cotton growing inside it. Boll weevils are entirely dependent on the cotton plant. Their entire life cycle takes place on the cotton boll, and they feed on the plant throughout all stages of their life cycle.


They became the bane of cotton growers everywhere. Cotton was the economic lifeblood of the southern US for a long time, and boll weevils became notorious because their consumption of the new buds on the cotton plant prevented it from producing cotton. Boll weevils would destroy a cotton crop by making the plants unable to produce and then spoil what cotton did get produced by eating it or laying eggs in it. This disruption in the cotton-producing field led to disruption in the cotton-producing industry, which impacted the textile industry. There were huge losses that trickled up like a domino effect if the boll weevils were not kept in check.

3. The boll weevil had such a devastating effect on the economies of cotton-growing states that people were forced to find new areas of work. By 1922 it was taking 8% of the cotton in the country annually. It devastated black Americans disproportionately because most were directly financially dependent on agriculture at that time in the South. This failure of the south's primary crop became a major impetus for the Great Migration of the time. Since a disproportionate number of African Americans were employed in growing cotton, the boll weevil had a more significant effect on them than on other populations, forcing large numbers to move north and changing the demographic make-up of the United States. You can see how boll weevils were a factor in the Great Migration, although not the only one. Some of the demographic changes that led to advances were addressed in recent research. A 2020 Journal of Economic History study found that the boll weevil spread between 1892 and 1922 benefited educational outcomes. Due to crop spoilage, children were less likely to work on cultivating cotton. A 2020 NBER paper found that the boll weevil spread contributed to fewer lynchings, less Confederate monument construction, less KKK activity, and higher non-white voter registration. Further research into the economic impact of the boll weevil on Black communities may uncover other areas of discriminatory practices that contributed to the Great Migration.


4. As cotton producers everywhere were exploring options to keep their crops alive, things differed in Enterprise, Alabama. Between 1909 and 1915, their crops shriveled at a significant rate. They could switch crops, but none brought in the profit that cotton did, especially on the town’s sandy and dry land. At the urging of George Washington Carver, the town of Enterprise diversified and started growing peanut crops, which was a great success in bringing new money into the area. The evolution of modern agricultural practices and peanuts did not attract boll weevils. This not only switched crops, but the ability to diversify crops fortified the town against future disasters as it reshaped agriculture in the area, making the bug a blessing in disguise. Carver also worked tirelessly in his lab at Tuskegee Institute to develop more than 300 new uses for the crop to create a market.

By 1919, the boll weevil crisis was plaguing the south. However, the town of Enterprise was developing into new options and possibilities and seeing an economic rebound. The citizens came to see what happened to their cotton crops not as a disaster but as something that prompted them to explore a new opportunity.


5. What happened to the boll weevils? Following World War II, it was discovered that pesticides were ineffective at treating crops – because of the impact on the environment and because pesticides also kill the natural predators of the boll weevil, leaving them to reproduce faster than they can be rid. Pesticides weren’t effective, and natural remedies were not efficient. However, scientists’ research yielded that pheromones changed their behavior and developed a synthetic blend of pheromones that attracted boll weevils into traps – where they could then be sprayed with pesticides without fear of harming other bugs or crops. It’s a story about resilience until a time and place where everything lines up – a story of beating the odds.


Due to the massively destructive impact boll weevils have on cotton crops, the government has made a tremendous effort to eradicate these beetles. While strategies are now in place to eliminate boll weevils and reduce damage to crops, the boll weevil remains the most destructive pest in the United States, having cost cotton producers at least $13 billion, estimated recently at around $300 million per year.


6. Boll weevils became notorious. They were featured in blues songs. There are still restaurants and locations named after them near Enterprise. There is a monument to the boll weevil in the town of Enterprise, Alabama. It was built in 1919, showing a woman holding a pedestal and a fountain, with a giant boll weevil added on top in 1949. The monument is a reminder of the significant boll weevil infestation that plagued the country in the 1900s, ruining cotton crops and livelihoods. The memorial celebrates the resilience of the local people in the face of misfortune. The boll weevil symbolizes both destruction and renewal to local farmers and human ability to adjust to adversity. It is the only monument in the world honoring an agricultural pest. It was severely vandalized in 1998 and moved to a nearby museum with a replica in its place.


In this whole journey, I find so many emotions. One lesson to be learned from the story is the importance of seeing the picture as a whole, what options are available, and what things you can lean into to overcome obstacles. Throughout the entire boll weevil history, there were challenges everywhere, from the cotton production to the farmers, to the people migrating to find work, to the towns trying to find ways to survive, to George Washington Carver innovating ways to save the economic livelihood of the south.


There have been mixed feelings on the statue honoring the boll weevil that led to diversifying crops and saving the industry of Enterprise, Alabama, rather than honoring George Washington Carver for his efforts to diversify the crops and overcome the devastation caused by the pests. I think that is understandable. I try to picture everything working together in a time when the south was rife with segregation and turmoil abounded due to the pests, and the chaos that happened led the way for things to happen like George Washington Carver to pave paths in history, displaying innovation and resilience and overcoming, that led to where we are today.


What does all that mean for us now? Respective to the bullet points above:

  1. You can shine among the crowds. Out of around 60,000 known weevils, the boll weevil is known by name and famous due to its impact. Unfortunately, it was a negative impact. You can stand out in a vast sea of people when you let yourself be visible and have an impact.

  2. Your steps will add up. Things trickle. Small steps add up. Improvement in one area can lead to improvements in others, just like deterioration in one place can lead to the same in others. Make sure to keep things in check and take steps every day toward the impact you’d like to have.

  3. Your response is your determining factor. Challenges and setbacks happen and force us to make decisions about our path and how to better ourselves. Difficulties don’t determine the impact the situation has on us; our response to the difficulty determines that impact. Sometimes progress can come from unexpected or difficult situations.

  4. Keep your eyes open for hidden possibilities. Options and possibilities are all around us. Even when things seem dire everywhere you look, listen for that one voice suggesting an outside-the-box suggestion that might could work if you try it. Then don’t be afraid to try! You never know when it may be what frees you.

  5. You do you, boo! When struggling, you don’t have to resort to typical strategies and try to make them work. You can be creative and develop what works for you in your situation.

  6. Practice gratitude. Pay credit where credit is due, recognizing that the path is not always straight, and sometimes multiple things lead to a breakthrough.

On your journey, look for the trails that can give insight into your thoughts and wisdom into the path you’d like. Every step will lead you somewhere, so be intentional. No step is still a step! Make sure to choose your step so that you are not at the mercy of the circumstances and instead have the opportunity to change your circumstances. Lastly, be grateful for the opportunities you find and your steps because they will add up and lead to a significant impact.


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Heather Bryant, Ph.D., Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine Heather’s passion is connections; she is your go-to expert at connecting the dots to make sense of the pieces and illuminate the meaning behind experiences. Her superpower is helping you find yours by combining ancient wisdom and modern psychology to tap into the essence of who you truly are and cultivate your inner strengths. She has been a therapist helping people reach their potential for two decades. As a coach, she offers a unique perspective and skill set to help you understand and embrace your unique and authentic purpose. Heather’s products help you connect with yourself and live true to who you are. Her mission is to help you live your vibrant and fulfilling life.

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