The Life Cycle of a Sunflower Stem Weevil

Last summer I came across a downy woodpecker hammering away at the stalk of a sunflower. I wondered what it was going after, and so I split open a stalk lengthwise to find the center of the stem hollowed out and several small larvae squirming through the debris left behind. A quick internet search later and I was learning about sunflower stem weevils, specifically Cylindrocopturus adspersus, which seems to be the species getting the most attention online and the stem-dwelling weevil that commercial sunflower growers seem most concerned about.

However, the range of sunflower stem weevil doesn’t appear to extend into Idaho, and so this is not likely to be the larvae I was seeing. There are other weevil species whose larvae can be found inside the stems of sunflowers, such as the cocklebur weevil (which is found in Idaho), but since larvae can be difficult to identify, I’ll wait to confirm the identity until I hear from an expert, find an adult weevil, and/or raise the larvae in captivity and see what it turns into. If and when that happens, I’ll be sure to update you. Until then, I present to you the life cycle of a sunflower stem weevil, which is still quite interesting, even if it’s not the species I found inside my sunflower stalks.

Sunflower stem weevils are in the family Curculionidae, which is the snout and bark beetle family. There are tens of thousands of species of weevils, a handful of which interact with sunflowers (plants in the genus Helianthus). Some weevil species eat the seeds, others eat the leaves, some are root feeders, while others are stem feeders. Depending on the life stage of a particular weevil species, it may consume multiple parts of a sunflower. Another interesting weevil is the sunflower headclipping weevil, which you can read about at The Prairie Ecologist.

Adult sunflower stem weevils are about 3/16 inch (4-5 mm) long and somewhat egg or oval shaped. They are grayish-brown with white spots. Their eyes, antennae, and snout are black, and their snout is short, curved, and held beneath the head. As adults, they can be found on sunflowers and sunflower relatives eating the leaves. However, they are not easily found. Their size, for one, makes them difficult to see, and they also move to the opposite sides of leaves and stems when disturbed, sometimes dropping to the ground as a threat approaches. You can see images of them on BugGuide.

unidentified larva in a sunflower stem

The larvae of sunflower stem weevils are about a quarter of a inch long and creamy white with a small, brown head capsule. They feed in the vascular tissue of sunflower stalks during the summer. In the fall, they migrate to the base of the stalks and create chambers in the woody tissue of the stalks and root crowns for overwintering.

Sunflower stem weevils have a single generation per year. After overwintering as larvae in the base of last year’s sunflowers, they pupate and emerge as adults in late spring or early summer. They find young sunflower plants and begin feeding on the leaves. After about 2-4 weeks, the weevils mate and lay eggs just beneath the epidermis of sunflower stems, usually in the stalk just below the cotyledon leaves. The eggs hatch a short time later and begin feeding in the stem until it’s time to overwinter.

the life cycle of a sunflower stem weevil

The damage caused by sunflower stem weevils is generally only a problem on sunflower farms, and only when weevils are found in high enough numbers to cause significant yield losses. Damage to leaves by the adults isn’t usually a concern. On the other hand, as the larvae tunnel through the stem, they can cause the plant to lodge (i.e. fall over prematurely), which is a problem particularly when the plants are machine harvested. Sunflower stem weevils can also introduce and help spread a fungus that causes black stem rot.

Read More About Sunflower Stem Weevil and Other Insect Pests of Sunflowers:

The Agents That Shape the Floral Traits of Sunflowers

Flowers come in a wide array of shapes, sizes, colors, and scents. Their diversity is downright astounding. Each individual species of flowering plant has its own lengthy story to tell detailing how it came to look and act the way it does. This is its evolutionary history. Unraveling this history is a nearly insurmountable task, but one that scientists continue to chip away at piece by piece.

In the case of floral traits – particularly for flowers that rely on pollinators to produce seeds – it is safe to say that millennia of interactions with floral visitors have helped shape not only the way the flower looks, but also the nature of its nectar and pollen. However, flowers are “expensive” to make and maintain, so even though they are necessary for reproduction, plants must find a balance between that and allocating resources for defense – against both herbivory and disease – and growth. This balance can differ depending on a plant’s life history – whether it is annual or perennial. An annual plant has one shot at reproduction, so it can afford to funnel much of its energy there. If a perennial is unsuccessful at reproduction one year, there is always next year, as long as it has allocated sufficient resources towards staying alive.

Where a plant exists in the world also influences how it looks. Abiotic factors like temperature, soil type, nutrient availability, sun exposure, and precipitation patterns help shape, through natural selection, many aspects of a plant’s anatomy and physiology, including the structure and composition of its flowers. Additional biotic agents like nectar robbersflorivores, and pathogens can also influence certain floral traits.

This is the background that researchers from the University of Central Florida and University of Georgia drew from when they set out to investigate the reasons for the diverse floral morphologies in the genus Helianthus. Commonly known as sunflowers, Helianthus is a familiar genus consisting of more than 50 species, most of which are found across North America. The genus includes both annuals and perennials, and all but one species rely on cross-pollination to produce viable seeds. Pollination is mainly carried out by generalist bees.

Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani)

Helianthus species are found in diverse habitats, including deserts, wetlands, prairies, rock outcrops, and sand dunes. Their inflorescences – characteristic of plants in the family Asteraceae – consist of a collection of small disc florets surrounded by a series of ray florets, which as a unit are casually referred to as a single flower. In Helianthus, ray florets are completely sterile and serve only to attract pollinators. Producing large and numerous ray florets takes resources away from the production of fertile disc florets, and sunflower species vary in the amount of resources they allocate for each floret form.

In a paper published in the July 2017 issue of Plant Ecology and Evolution, researchers selected 27 Helianthus species and one Phoebanthus species (a closely related genus) to investigate “the evolution of floral trait variation” by examining “the role of environmental variation, plant life history, and flowering phenology.” Seeds from multiple populations of each species were obtained, with populations being carefully selected so that there would be representations of each species from across their geographic ranges. The seeds were then grown out in a controlled environment, and a series of morphological and physiological data were recorded for the flowers of each plant. Climate data and soil characteristics were obtained for each of the population sites, and flowering period for each species was collected from various sources.

The researchers found “all floral traits” of the sunflower species to be “highly evolutionarily labile.” Flower size was found to be larger in regions with greater soil fertility, consistent with the resource-cost hypothesis which “predicts that larger and more conspicuous flowers should be selected against in resource-poor environments.” However, larger flower size had also repeatedly evolved in drier environments, which goes against this prediction. Apart from producing smaller flowers in dry habitats, flowering plants have other strategies to conserve water such as opening their flowers at night or flowering for a short period of time. Sunflowers do neither of these things. As the researchers state, “this inconsistency warrants consideration.”

The researchers speculate that “the evolution of larger flowers in drier environments” may be a result of fewer pollinators in these habitats “strongly favoring larger display sizes in self-incompatible species.” The flowers are big because they have to attract a limited number of pollinating insects. Conversely, flowers may be smaller in wetter environments because there is greater risk of pests and diseases. This is supported by the enemy-escape hypothesis – smaller flowers are predicted in places where there is increased potential for florivory and pathogens. Researchers found that lower disc water content had also evolved in wetter environments, which supports the idea that the plants may be defending themselves against flower-eating pests.

Seed heads of Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani)

Another interesting finding is that, unlike other genera, annual and perennial sunflower species allocate a similar amount of resources towards reproduction. On average, flower size was not found to be different between annual and perennial species. Perhaps annuals instead produce more flowers compared to perennials, or maybe they flower for longer periods. This is something the researchers did not investigate.

Finally, abiotic factors were not found to have any influence on the relative investment of ray to disc florets or the color of disc florets. Variations in these traits may be influenced instead by pollinators, the “biotic factor” that is considered “the classic driver of floral evolution.” This is something that will require further investigation. As the researchers conclude, “determining the exact drivers of floral trait evolution is a complex endeavor;” however, their study found “reasonable support for the role of aridity and soil fertility in the evolution of floral size and water content.” Yet another important piece to the puzzle as we learn to tell the evolutionary history of sunflowers.