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There are several species of cutworms which attack lawns, however the larvae is the stage that damages turfgrass. The larvae is a large, fleshy, dull-coloured, hairless caterpillar about 1-3 inches long and varying in colour. In general, cutworm caterpillars have a dull gray or brown background colour, with stripes of brighter or sometimes darker colours.
Cutworm adults are dull-coloured, night flying moths and are usually only seen around lights at night, during Summer. They have a wingspan of 1-2 inches and their front wings have distinct scale patterns (faint lines, circles and kidney-shaped spots) which can be used to identify species.
Each cutworm species has its own life cycle. Adults migrate south in the Fall and return in Spring. When the adults return, they begin to lay eggs on the tips of grass blades. Tiny caterpillars only 1mm long hatch and begin to feed on the foliage. Caterpillars go through 6 or 7 molts during their development. As they grow, they gradually move deeper into the thatch, carving burrows which they line with green excrement. Some large caterpillars stick their heads out of their burrows at night, chop off grass plants which are within reach and pull the blades back into the burrow for subsequent feeding. After feeding for 2 to 4 weeks, the caterpillars transform in the soil to pupae (cocoons), which are relatively smooth, torpedo-shaped and brown. The cutworm pupate and emerge as a moth.
Cutworms generally feed at night. They burrow into the thatch and emerge at night to feed on surrounding leaves and crowns. The type of damage varies, depending upon the species of cutworm damage, but in general larvae damage occurs from May through to July.
Cutworm damage is often small, and limited to a couple of small areas that often recover on their own. Occasionally, the infestations and damage are large and control is required. If you have a history of cutworm problems, then consider overseeding with entophyte enhanced turfgrasses. Cutworm feeding on entophytic turfgrasses is deterred because of the fungal toxin within the entophytic fungi. Beneficial nematodes can also be used to suppress cutworm larvae populations.
If you suspect that you have a cutworm problem but are unsure, talk to your local Nutri-Lawn and we'll come out and take a look for you.