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Black-headed caterpillar worries coconut growers

M.K. Ananth
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Pest attacks trees in Namagiripettai and Senthamangalam

Attacked by pest:Coconut fronds that have been attacked by black head caterpillar have turned yellowish brown on a farm at Mettala near Rasipuram in Namakkal district.-Photo: Special Arrangement
Attacked by pest:Coconut fronds that have been attacked by black head caterpillar have turned yellowish brown on a farm at Mettala near Rasipuram in Namakkal district.-Photo: Special Arrangement

Farmers growing coconut trees over thousands of acres in Namagiripettai and Senthamangalam blocks in Namakkal District and nearby Thuraiyur in Tiruchi, Thamapatti and Attur in Salem Districts have been badly affected by the drastic spread of black-headed caterpillar that is preying on their trees, costing them heavily over the last few years.

“In 2009-10 the caterpillar was seen in coconut trees owned by one farmer on his three acres of land in Metalla, near Namagiripettai. But lack of proper attention has facilitated its spread across 3,000 acres of coconut cultivation in Metalla and five nearby villages alone. Spreading 1,000 times in three years is alarming and will completely destroy all the coconut trees in this region soon,” laments farmer K. Ashok Kumar.

He told The Hindu that 600 of the total 1,700 coconut trees in his farm were attacked by the caterpillar.

“Climatic condition from November to March facilitates easy multiplication of black head. Its spread drops to 20 percent in the summer (April and May) before it climbs to 40 percent during the rainy season (June to October).

“Another important reason for drastic spread of the caterpillar is the severe drought.

“Coconut production in trees attacked by the caterpillar drops by 80 percent as the flowering and formation of fresh leaves is hit because the caterpillar eats the portion that is needed for photosynthesis.

“One or two coconuts are formed in place of 15 to 20 that used to grow in trees that are not attacked by the caterpillar. In due course the tree will grow weak, shrink and die,” he added.

“Releasing predators for the caterpillar is the best solution to curtail its spread. Experts in the Coconut Research Station, Aliyar, said that it would cost Rs. 50 to release the predator on one tree. The investment should be made four times a year – once in three months – which would cost me Rs. 3.4 lakh a year for my 1,700 trees,” the farmer said.

Farmers said that releasing the predator is not only an expensive affair, but is also of no use till all farmers release it in their trees.

This is because the caterpillar that survives in the fields where it is not released will soon spread to farms that have become free from black head.

Secretary of the Kalkurichi Vellalapatti Vivasayegal Munetra Sangam R. Chandrasekaran who took up this issue in the last two farmer’s grievance meetings at the Collectorate said that it is high time help reached them.

“Recently officials from various agriculture and line departments came to our village and conducted an awareness programme,” he added.

Coconut growers said that they are in need of a solution that they cannot work out with mere awareness.

They have made an appeal to the government to make the predator available at a subsidised price that is affordable for farmers from all walks of life.

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