Busseola fusca (African Stem Borer, Maize Stalk Borer)

Life > Eukaryotes > Opisthokonta > Metazoa (animals) > Bilateria > Ecdysozoa > Panarthropoda > Tritocerebra > Phylum: Arthopoda > Mandibulata > Atelocerata > Panhexapoda > Hexapoda > Insecta (insects) > Dicondyla > Pterygota > Metapterygota > Neoptera > Eumetabola > Holometabola > Panorpida > Amphiesmenoptera > Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) > Glossata > Coelolepida > Myoglossata > Neolepidoptera > Heteroneura > Ditrysia > Apoditrysia > Obtectomera > Macrolepidoptera > Noctuoidea > Family: Noctuidae

Maize Stalk Borer is an indigenous African moth that has larvae (caterpillars) that bore into grasses with thick stems. It is a pest of Maize and Sorghum and in South Africa it is considered to reduce maize production by about 10%.

Life cycle

First generation

  • Adults. Emerge from pupae in the last quarter of the year but mainly in November.
  • Eggs. The female lays a batch of up to 150 eggs between the leaf sheaths and stalk. Eggs in a batch are slightly separated from one another. Females usually lay a number of egg batches and in total can lay close to 1000 eggs. Eggs hatch about nine days after they have been laid.
  • Larvae. First instar larvae are termed 'top grubs' and feed on young, unfurled leaves, the holes they have eaten becoming visible when the leaves unfurl. Caterpillars move between plants quite often, doing so by floating across to a new plant suspended by a silken thread. Older larvae start feeding down the inside of stalks, usually only one larva per stalk as they are cannibalistic. There are usually six larval instars but there can be as many as eight when conditions are unfavourable. In the last instar they tunnel to the outer perimeter of the stalk where they leave a very thin circular membrane of plant tissue through when the adult will be able to emerge after pupation. Larvae complete there development after about a month. 
  • Pupae. The larva pupates inside the  hollowed out stalk. The pupal stage lasts about three weeks.

Second generation

  • Adults. Emergence is in the first quarter of the year, mainly February. 
  • Eggs. In this generation the eggs are laid along the edge of the sheathing leaves.
  • Larvae. The newly emerged larvae feed on the succulent growth in the growing cob and its enveloping leaves, causing extensive damage to the young seeds. Larvae disperse to other plants and as they grow bigger they start boring into stalks, with  eventually there being only one caterpillar per stalk. 
  • Pupae. Some of the larvae pupate in the stalk before winter and emerge as adults after about three weeks. The majority of larvae, however, pass through winter in the base of the stalk and only pupate in spring. 

Third generation (only some individuals)

The larvae that managed to pupate and emerge before winter emerge as adults before winter. Eggs are laid on unseasonal maize. Larvae start their development before winter and then pass through winter to pupate in spring. So it is the early starting first generation moths that usually end up going through a third generation within the development year.  

Natural Enemies

Name Stage attacked Comments
Platytelenomus busseolae (Hymenoptera: Scelionidae) eggs Parasitoid
Apantales sesamiae (Hymenoptera: Braconidae) larvae Parasitoid attacking half-grown caterpillars. As many as 100 parasitoid larvae can develop on one caterpillar. At the end of their development they pupate in white silken cocoons that cover the remains of the caterpillar. They can kill up to 95% of caterpillars late in the season.
Iphiaulax sp. (Hymenoptera: Ichneumonidae) larvae Parasitoid
Pediobius furvum (Hymenoptera: Eulophidae) pupae Parasitoid. Up to about 100 can emerge from one stalk borer pupa.


  • The predators and parasitoids play a valuable role in bringing down the population numbers of Stalk Borer but often not enough to satisfy the farmers.

  • Old stalks lying in the fields during winter contain the overwintering caterpillars so they need to be removed or ploughed deeply into the soil so that moths cannot emerge successfully.

  • Four to six weeks after moth emergence, plants need to be checked for stalk borer larvae. Insecticides are normally applied if more than five out of every 100 randomly selected plants contains larvae.  

Find out more about maize pests in southern Africa


  • Annecke, D.P. & Moran, V.C. 1982. Insects and mites of cultivated plants in South Africa. Butterworths, Durban.

  • Chinwada, P. & Overholt, W.A. 2001. Natural enemies of maize stemborers on the highveld of Zimbabwe. African Entomology 9: 67-75.

  • Ebenebe, A.A., van den Berg, J. & Van der Linde, T.C. de K. 2000. Seasonal flight activity of the maize stalk borer, Busseola fusca (Fuller) (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae), in Lesotho. African Entomology 8: 63-68.

  • Ebenebe, A.A., van den Berg, J. & Van der Linde, T.C. 2001. The incidence of Dorylus helvolus (Linnaeus) (Hymenoptera: Formicidae) and parasitoids (Hymenoptera: Braconidae) as mortality factors of Busseola fusca Fuller (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae) and Chilo partellus (Swinhoe) (Lepidoptera: Crambidae) in Lesotho. African Entomology 9: 77-84.

  • Kfir, R. 2000. Seasonal occurrence, parasitoids and pathogens of the African stem borer, Busseola fusca (Fuller) (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae), on cereal crops in South Africa. African Entomology 8: 1-14.

Text by Hamish Robertson

Contact us if you can contribute information or images to improve this page.  

 Lepidoptera home   Biodiversity Explorer home   Iziko home   Search