Start Scouting for Black Cutworm in Emerged Corn

May 8, 2024
ICM News

Black cutworm (BCW) is a migratory pest that arrives in Iowa with spring storms each year. Black cutworm moths lay eggs in and near crop fields, and larvae can feed on leaves or cut corn seedlings. Larvae must attain a certain size (fourth instar) to be large enough to cut corn plants, and cutting can occur until plants reach the V5 stage (five leaf collars present). Black cutworm is unpredictable, making it essential to scout to determine whether BCW larvae are present in a field and if management is required. Because BCW is sporadic, it is usually not economical to use preventative insecticide applications; however, rescue treatments can be very effective if scouting reveals larvae are present at economic levels. Black cutworm moth activity was ahead of schedule this spring, but recent cooler temps have likely slowed development of larvae and cutting dates are likely on track with previous years.

In a typical year, early planted corn grows quickly enough in the spring to escape black cutworm feeding. However, cool and wet conditions in late-April and early May kept planters out of the field, and any corn already planted is growing slowly. This, combined with early flights of black cutworm, may result in the “perfect storm” for BCW injury: seedling corn (less than V5) in the field and BCW larvae large enough to cut corn plants. Use the predicted cutting dates in this article as a guide to begin scouting fields before the cutting date predicted in your area. Fields with cover crops or other green tissue (i.e., weeds) this spring should be prioritized since they serve as egg-laying sites for migrating moths.

Predicting cutting dates

We can predict when BCW will reach the 4th instar based on accumulating degree days and the occurrence of significant flights. A significant flight is defined as the capture of eight or more BCW moths over a two-night period in a pheromone trap. Larvae reach the 4th instar after 300 GDD have accumulated since a significant flight.

The Iowa Moth Trapping Network enlists the help of volunteers around the state to monitor BCW activity annually. Counties that have reported significant flights include Floyd (April 8), Muscatine (April 11), Benton (April 15), Marshall (April 17), Keokuk (April 19), O’Brien (April 19), Iowa (April 25), Buena Vista (April 25), Washington (April 29), and Boone (April 29); the date in parentheses is the date of the first significant flight in that county.

Figure 1 shows the predicted cutting dates for BCW in each crop reporting district. These cutting dates are estimated by combining actual, historical, and forecasted degree day data. Accurate cutting date predictions rely on the presence of moth traps in each region; therefore, it is important to scout well before these predicted cutting dates to ensure larvae are noticed before plants are cut. BCW trapping will continue throughout May, and any additional significant flights that occur will be included in our weekly ICM Blog updates. Additional significant flights in an area may represent prolonged feeding of BCW larvae, so continue to scout until corn reaches V5.

Black cutworm cutting map.
Figure 1. Estimated black cutworm cutting dates for each Iowa crop reporting district based on initial significant flights in 2024, as of May 6. These are estimates of when cutting will begin, but additional large flights may result in prolonged feeding by black cutworm larvae.

Capturing BCW moths in a pheromone trap does not necessarily mean economic infestations will occur in a particular location. Scouting fields is the only way to determine if BCW are present and whether management is warranted. Combine scouting for BCW with early season stand assessments. Missing or cut plants are signs of black cutworm feeding but dig in the soil near affected plants to confirm larvae are present. Other early season pests (grubs, seedcorn maggot, wireworms) may also be present. Refer to this encyclopedia article to learn more about black cutworm identification, biology, scouting, and management.

Keep up with moth flights!

You can keep up with the Iowa Moth Trapping Network in a few ways:

If you live near the Iowa border, information from trapping networks in other states may be useful to you. Some links to out-of-state resources are listed below, but others may be available:

Report larvae!

If you see any fields with BCW larvae or injury while scouting, please let us know! You can contact us via email ( or X (formerly Twitter) (@erinwhodgson and @ashleyn_dean). This information will help us refine cutting predictions and scouting recommendations in the future.

Links to this article are strongly encouraged, and this article may be republished without further permission if published as written and if credit is given to the author, Integrated Crop Management News, and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. If this article is to be used in any other manner, permission from the author is required. This article was originally published on May 8, 2024. The information contained within may not be the most current and accurate depending on when it is accessed.


Ashley Dean Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Specialist II

Ashley is an education extension specialist for field crop entomology at Iowa State University. She coordinates the Iowa Moth Trapping Network, the Regional Corn Rootworm Monitoring Network, and the Iowa Pest Alert Network. She also develops educational resources for field crop pests in Iowa and ...

Erin Hodgson Professor

Dr. Erin Hodgson started working in the Department of Entomology, now the Department of Plant Pathology, Entomology, and Microbiology, at Iowa State University in 2009. She is a professor with extension and research responsibilities in corn and soybeans. She has a general background in integrated...