The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has activated an emergency team to help fight the plague and is advising on the pesticides to be used.
The voracious larval pest could ruin the entire country’s maize harvest if not contained.
The worms also attack sorghum, soybeans, groundnuts and potatoes.
Armyworm larvae can defoliate entire plants, leaving behind only barren stalks as they sweep through farmlands.
Prinsloo’s employees sounded the alarm a week ago when they saw that the maize crop was being eaten.
The owners of Bon Accord farm, north of Pretoria, had no idea what they were up against. Their immediate response was to stock up on at least seven pesticides, costing about R40,000, but the pests were not eradicated.
‘Spodoptera frugiperda’, better known as fall armyworm. Picture: ALON SKUY
Prinsloo drove to Vaalwater, in Limpopo, to get what she had been told might work. She will know after three days if the poison, for which she paid R4,800 for 5.4kg, has an effect.
But even if the worms are killed it will be too late – there is nothing left on her farm to save.
“We have tried every poison we know but these things just won’t die. We have invested R400,000 in this crop. The entire crop is infested; the loss runs to R1-million. It is bad,” said Jacques Prinsloo, Adele’s son.
“Last season was the drought. Now we have rain and then you get this. We are finished.”
Samples collected from the Prinsloos’ farm by Agricultural Research Council scientists have confirmed that the worms are of the same species as those collected in Limpopo.
The pests have destroyed crops in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi, and have spread to other Southern African countries, including Namibia and Mozambique.
About 20km north of the Prinsloos’ farm, near Hammanskraal, Klaus Wassermann’s farm is also under attack. He has been struggling to fight the armyworm for two weeks with no success.
Wassermann said the infestation was still small on his 13ha of maize, at about 2%.
He has sprayed a systemic pesticide reputed to be effective over a three-day period.
Wassermann said the worms seemed to attack conventional maize but genetically modified crops seemed able to withstand them.
Suppliers are being urged by the Department of Agriculture to apply for emergency registration of agricultural chemicals to be used on maize and other host plants against Spodoptera frugiperda (fall armyworm),” said department spokesman Bomikazi Molapo.
Molapo said a guide for emergency pesticide use was being made available.
The South African Emergency Plant Pest Response Plan, which deals with new pest detection, has been activated and is working on finding a solution.
So far the damage has been limited and mainly affects yellow maize varieties, sweetcorn and maize planted for seed production.
Gerhard Verdoorn, of the Griffon Poison Information Centre, said distressed farmers in Pretoria, Limpopo and parts of North West were calling for help.
“It is a big problem. A crisis. The most devastating effect of the infestation is that it is the first time a pest has attacked the entire farming sector, big or small,” said Verdoorn.
Christo van der Rheede, deputy executive director of Agri SA, said the organisation was pleading with the government to make sure that agricultural scientists were made available to help farmers.
“We have had good rains, the crops were growing, so the last thing we want is a pest that has proved its capability to destroy crops in our neighbouring countries.”