The species that most commonly live in and damage Florida’s warm season turfgrasses include the tropical sod webworm (Herpetogramma phaeopteralis), fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda), striped grass loopers (Mocis spp.), and the fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus).
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Tropical sod webworm – TSW caterpillars (Figure 2) are gray-green, have brown spots on each segment, and are the smallest caterpillars of the species listed (Figure 1). Mature larvae can be ¾ to 1 inch long, and they pupate in the thatch or on the soil surface. Adults (Figure 3) are small, tan to gray moths with a wingspan of ¾ to 1 inch. They do not cause damage. Moths hide in shrubs and other sheltered areas during the day, and fly low when disturbed. Females lay clusters of 6-15 white eggs on grass blades at night. Eggs hatch within 7 days.
Fall armyworm – FAW caterpillars (Figure 4) can be green or brown, and mature larvae are 1½ inches long with four pairs of fleshy prolegs on the abdomen. As larvae grow, light stripes appear along the length of the body and dark spots appear on the top of each segment. FAW have an inverted light-colored ‘Y’ on the front of their head. They pupate in the soil. The adults (Figure 5) are larger, with a wingspan of nearly 1½ inches. Females are almost all gray, but males are shaded gray and brown and have white spots near the center of the wing and near the tip. FAW eggs are laid in clusters of 50-150 along grass blades or on non-plant surfaces. Eggs (Figure 6) are grayish in color, and are coated with moth scales.
Striped grass loopers – SGL (Figure 7) have a longer and thinner body and “loop” like inchworms when crawling. They only have two pairs of fleshy prolegs. Their color ranges from cream to black, there is a light-colored narrow stripe down their backs, and many stripes on their heads. SGL pupate on tall pieces of grass or small shrubs. Adults (Figure 8) are the largest of the group, with a wingspan of 1½ inches (Figure 8). Wings are tan to yellowish-brown in color with vertical lines and round spots. Eggs are laid singly on grass blades.
Fiery skipper – These caterpillars have a very distinctive “neck” that is constricted behind the black head (Figure 9). The body looks plump, is covered with tiny bristles, and the skin surface appears pebbled. Young caterpillars are a pale yellow-green color, but mature larvae reach up to 1 inch long, are yellow-brown to gray-brown, and have a faint stripe down the middle of the back. Pupation occurs in the thatch, at least partially enclosed in a cocoon of loosely webbed plant debris. Adults are stout yellowish butterflies, marked with orange and brown (see the website: http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/TOOLS/TURF/PESTS/inskipper.html). Their eyes are large and dark, and the wingspan is about 1 inch. Eggs are laid singly on the undersides of leaf blades.
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In southern Florida, caterpillar populations may be active year-round. However, moths from the south FLY into north Florida during late spring, and reinvade. Populations build up over the summer and may cause significant damage by late summer or fall. The adults (moths) of all three species are active from dusk till just after dawn. Tropical sod webworm is most active from April through November in north Florida, but may occur year-round in south Florida. Three to four generations occur in Florida each year. Tropical sod webworm larvae feed on St. Augustinegrass, bermudagrass and zoysiagrass.
One generation develops in about 6 weeks. Frost tends to reduce tropical caterpillar populations over the winter or possibly induce them to pupate. Fall armyworm occurs year-round in south Florida and migrates northward each spring. This means that populations can be damaging in the spring in south Florida, but don’t build up until fall in north Florida. Fall armyworm will feed on all turfgrasses, but prefers bermudagrass. Fall armyworm and striped grass looper can develop in about 4 weeks under warm weather conditions. Striped grass looper also occurs year-round in south Florida, and isn’t a problem until fall in north Florida. Striped grass looper is primarily a pest on bahiagrass in pastures, but will readily infest other turfgrasses. Larvae of these species are active at night and will hide in a curled position near the soil surface during the day. Fall armyworm larvae may also feed during the early and later parts of the day. Green or brown pellets of frass may be visible on the soil surface, indicating that larger larvae are present. One generation can develop in about 4 weeks under warm weather conditions.
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Laurie Trenholm . University of Florida .ifas