Lawn-care companies are swamped as armyworms decimate entire lawns within hours and spread north, and there may be a link to climate change

·3 min read
FILE PICTURE: An armyworm is seen on corn crop by night at a village in Menghai county in Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province, China, July 12, 2019.  REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo
Armyworms can quickly devastate crops and lawns. Reuters
  • Armyworms can turn a lush, green lawn brown seemingly overnight.

  • Some lawn-care companies are struggling to deal with the influx of customers with the pest.

  • The worm is spreading to new areas, and that may be linked to climate change.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

The lawns David Bender deals with are often so infested with armyworms that it almost looks like the grass is rippling in waves.

"They completely eat the lawn. It turns a green, plush lawn into a brown, mushy lawn within hours and days," Bender, the owner of Weeded Lawn Service, said. "I think they're gross. Thousands of those things are just marching through destroying the entire property."

Though Bender has been in business in Richmond, Virginia, for 20 years, he said he'd never dealt with armyworms in his area until last week. Now he and his staff are scrambling as a torrent of clients call for help with the worms, he added.

Bender said it cost clients hundreds of dollars to get rid of the pests and reseed their lawns. Other companies in the area were similarly overwhelmed, with one asking prospective customers to email instead of call since the company's voice mail was full with armyworm inquiries.

An infestation usually begins with patches of bare spots or brown grass before spreading throughout an entire lawn.

"The damage to the lawn pictured was done over a TWO DAY time period!" Wes Ory, the owner of Heritage Lawns and Irrigation, which serves the Kansas City area, tweeted along with a photo of a yellowish-brown yard.

While armyworms often infest lawns and crop fields throughout the Southeast, the pests' spread to new areas like the Northeast and Midwest might be linked to a warming climate, Terri Billeisen, an entomologist at North Carolina State University, said.

Billeisen said the worms preferred eating finer grasses like Bermuda and fescue, which are some of the most common grass types for lawns. Armyworms are about 1.5 inches long and usually dark green or black with a yellow head.

"They do love lush, green turf, so irrigated and fertilized warm-season turfgrass such as hybrid Bermuda grass is a big target in the heat of the summer," Rick Brandenburg, an entomologist at North Carolina State University, said. "There is really no way to prevent them."

Jeff Herman, the editor in chief of the national lawn-services company LawnStarter, said armyworms were a common nuisance for clients but hadn't posed a bigger problem this year than in previous years.

"Armyworm invasions are a common pest people have been dealing with for as long as there have been lawns," Herman said.

Here's what to do if you think you have an armyworm problem:

  • Mix soap with water and pour the mixture over a small patch of your yard. If your yard is infested, the caterpillars will rise to the surface.

  • Keep a look out for brown patches of grass, tips of grass blades that have been eaten, and birds flocking around your lawn.

  • Target the pests when they're small with a liquid insecticide (these can be found online and in lawn and garden stores).

Do you work at a lawn-care company or have you dealt with armyworms in your lawn? Email the reporter of this story at hschlitz@insider.com

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