Loxostege sticticalis is synonymous with trouble for Turkish farmers who earn their living from sunflower production. The small moth, also known as “meadow caterpillar” in Turkish, took over particularly sunflower fields in Turkey’s northwestern and central regions. First reported in Thrace (Trakya) region, it now spread to other provinces like Bilecik and Eskişehir.

Aided by drones spraying pesticides and other methods, farmers strive to keep them away from their crops. Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry assist their fight to stop the moths from devouring the precious crop. Authorities downplay concerns that it will affect overall sunflower yield, but the danger lingers.

Authorities say pesticide applications in the entire Trakya region, which includes the provinces of Edirne, Tekirdağ and Kırklareli, are almost complete while the work continues elsewhere. The efforts continue to eliminate the larvae of the moth.

Moths were ubiquitous in an area of about 4 million acres, from Edirne’s Keşan, Uzunköprü, Meriç and Enez districts, Kırklareli’s Lüleburgaz and Babaeski to Tekirdağ’s Süleymanpaşa, Muratlı, Malkara and Hayrabolu districts. Since last week, farmers have been spraying pesticides on their fields, either by land equipment or by drones, while larger planes cannot operate due to strong winds. Atilla Bayazıt, head of the local directorate of agriculture in Edirne, told Anadolu Agency (AA) on Tuesday that they managed to bring the situation under control “90%.” In Edirne, pesticides are used in some 100,000 acres of sunflower fields. In Tekirdağ, around 70,000 acres of land were subject to moth invasion, though local authorities say they don’t expect significant damage to yields.

“Of all my years as a farmer, I’ve never seen such a moth domination,” Halil Gündür, a farmer in Tekirdağ, said. “They were everywhere. The front grill of my tractor was covered with moths. I am accustomed to them but they were far fewer in the past,” he said. In Kırklareli, Mehmet Aksoy, director of the local directorate of agriculture, said they had some 900,000 acres of sunflower fields in the province and were applying pesticides everywhere moths emerged. “So far, we applied pesticide on 75,000 acres,” he told AA. Aksoy said moths do not damage the seeds, the most valuable part of the plant, but they eat away leaves, blocking off photosynthesis required for a plant to produce the seeds.

In Istanbul’s Çatalca district, the main hub for sunflower production in the metropolis, moths emerged some 20 days ago and soon invaded everywhere. In some fields, the plant’s bright yellow flowers were nowhere to be seen due to the extensive damage. Zafer Öztürk, the headman of the rural Nakkaş neighborhood in Çatalca, told Demirören News Agency (DHA) that the “meadow caterpillar” was last seen this much about 30 years ago. “It almost happened in one night. We found moths taking over our fields. I was expecting some 30 tons of crops from my field and I lost about 9 tons (of yield),” he said.

Moths were also reported in the western province of Bilecik last week, damaging the crops and in the central province of Eskişehir, the northwestern province of Bursa and the western province of Çanakkale. Sunflower production is limited in those provinces, but authorities warned that the moths might also damage corn fields neighboring the sunflower fields.

Nihat Pakdil, deputy minister of Agriculture and Forestry, told reporters on Tuesday after a visit to Tekirdağ that it was early to say the danger was fully contained but there won’t be any impact on total sunflower yield in the country. He said the state would always support the farmers in their fight against the moth. Pakdil noted that sunflower production was boosted this year due to a high level of precipitation and thus, the yield may be lower than expected.

Professor Yalçın Kaya from the Department of Genetics and Bioengineering at the Trakya University of Edirne, who also heads a research center on improving the crops, said moths emerge when the fields are not “plowed deeper” and in case of lack of action against weeds in the fields. Kaya told AA on Wednesday that farmers should also adjust their pesticide scheduling to a time that would not affect the bees, another inhabitant of the fields. “This moth is a real ‘green’ predator known for damaging more than 150 plant species. Its original host is wormseed, where it leaves its larvae. They first eat away weeds and then move on to the sunflowers,” he said.

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