The cabbage hair-worm


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The cabbage hair-worm
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Mixed Material
Chittenden, F. H ( Frank Hurlbut ), 1858-1929
United States Dept. of Agriculture, Division of Entomology ( Washington, D.C )
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oclc - 631045877
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Full Text

ISQl !lULAR NO 62, REVISEo EDITION. Issued July 28, 1908.
United States Department of Agricult

L. 0. HOWARD, Entomologist and Chief of
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?' ,. By F. H. CHITTENDEN,
: Bntomologist in Charge of Breeding Experi 1n
Not since the "kissing-bug" craze which originated on,
: D. C., in June, 1899, and spread generally throughout the country, has
S there been anything like such a furore as was created by the discovery
..* of the s-called "cabbage snake," a species of hair-worm, in the heads
:*: :". of cabbage in Tennessee, South Carolina, and Louisiana, in the fall of
S 1903. That year the cabbage-snake scare was practically confined to
,* Tennessee and neighboring States southward. The first specimen of
,: Mermis albmcans Diesing (fig. 1), which is the cause of the trouble,a was
; identified from McCays, Tenn. This
Sii." o creature and its still somewhat mys-
terious occurrence iun cabbage have
. *'.......... become a matter of much perplexity
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^", and annoyance to many of our cor-
r'' respondents, to economic entomolo-
^.":tgistsa, and to chemists and physicians
HL::' f the States where the Mermis most
..u.".. unds. Many reports have been
..... i:V" ed from reliable correspond-
. '::. :::: .: ." .:" .: . : ^^ y a'
.'....u..of n. mors of persons being
-4. t by eating cabbage acted FIG. .-Hair-wormn (Mermis albicans). Natural
i"y :.hishair-wonn. Some of these size (original).
witnS ^ gleaned from the daily press, and many clippings o( the "yellow
. .. ,i .. i:, .... i'i "" " B I ". .. .dH : .Ei 7 "... .... E E: .. " I
j......ii orcar were received. Among them were alleged reports
,Ij-PI 7 -anwho stated that when cabbage affected by hair-worms
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l, it, produced instant death, and from "' State chemist" who
"A;oaiin:.ation ,of the worm and reported that it .contained
:H~` "t 0 fto kill eight' persons." In Raleigh County, W. Va.,
e. rop was reported a complete failure, and "there was
Vq#" regard to the identity of the creature and its alleged poisonous
Sebedtht, a short account was furnished under the title "Hair Worms
4!.Wu 44, of this office, pp. 93-95; and similar inquiries are being made
S"During 1904, frequently five or six communications were
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,handled this commodity, and the decided extension of the area ii3
which the hair-worm was detected. Encouraged by erroneous reports, "
evidently incited in many cases by unscrupulous persons, the scarMs
soon became widespread, causing general fear of poisoning from V-iri- "
ginia and West Virginia southward through the same States as were
affected in 1903, and into Florida, and in addition westward to Ken- i'
tucky, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Colorado. *


The cabbage hair-worm is aptly described as resembling a piece of :.
basting thread, of the thickness of a strand of corn silk, of a darning :i'
needle, of a No. 36 or No. 40 thread, or like a horsehair; white in-`:'::
color; found coiled, or coiling and uncoiling; stretched at length o ri
crawling in cabbage heads. Its length varies from 2 to 9 inches, but .;B|
reports have been received of a creature found in the heads of cabbage I
measuring 9 feet! The imagination of newspaper writers as to colori ^:^s
runs riot through "green, white, light red, olive green, and yellow,'''
As a matter of fact this hair-worm is filiform or thread-like, a:::d"::i
when it attracts attention on cabbage, measures generally from 4 to f.
inches. One specimen, doubtfully of the same species, measured wh
uncoiled 22 inches, or nearly 2 feet. The color is white or whitish,:O
although it sometimes has a pale brownish or greenish tinge.


Many popular names have been bestowed upon this worm, including
"cabbage snake," "snake," "snake worm," "serpent," "reptile,4";]'
"cabbage rattlesnake," occasionally "cabbage worm," and seldom
ever hair-worm. Most specimens submitted for identification hgar:
proved to be what is known as Mermis albicans Diesirig.P This cref
ture is neither an insect nor a snake, but one of the hair-worms of the

a The studies of Diesing, Siebold, Meissner, and others have led to the expressed
that M. albicans is merely the mature sexual form of acuminata, the latter name i
[Cir. 62]

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I order Gordiacea. The principal species of this order belong to the
.. genera Gordius and Mermis, and were treated of somewhat at length
im 1877.z
r Mermis albicans was received during 1903 in a piece of apple,

-lt found coiled near the seed. This species is known to be parasitic on
) the codling moth or "apple worm" (Carpocapsa pomonella L.), which
accounts for its presence in this instance (1. c., p. 327). It is also
parasitic on certain common and destructive forms of grasshoppers,
Melanoplus spretus Thos. or Rocky Mountain locust, M. differentialis
Thos. or differential locust, Schistocerca americana Dru., and Dissos-
teira carolina L.b


The presence of this hair-worm in cabbage and the unfortunate noto-
riety which has been given it, including the circulation of the merest
rumors, mostly vague and uncertain, of so many persons being poi-
soned by eating affected cabbage, has seriously injured the money
value of this vegetable very generally throughout the affected States.
Although the cabbage hair-worm is not in the slightest degree deleteri-
ous to health, the credence given to the most absurd rumors which were
Circulated has injured cabbage for consumption and hence for sale.
In parts of Illinois the fears of growers and purchasers were such that
farmers were letting their cabbage go to waste. At Quinter, Kans.,
quantities of cabbage shipped from Colorado were reported burned
because of the presence of the hair-worm. In Tennessee it was esti-
mated that in 1904 fully 85 per cent of the cabbage crop of the State
was lost-in fact, a sudden and complete suspension of the industry
was actually caused. Similar reports were received from various por-
tions of Missouri, Iowa, West Virginia, and Virginia. "In Cheatham,
Smith, Franklin, Coffee, Bedford, and other counties [in Missouri]
hundreds of barrels of sauerkraut were destroyed through fear that the
dreaded snake might be a part of the ingredients." At Columbia, Mo.,
hundreds of dollars' worth of cabbage was lost. Many gardeners
claimed that they could not sell a single head on account of the "snake
scare. '
a First report of the U. S. Entomological Commission, published in 1877 (pp. 326-334).
The hosts of hair-worms include many Orthoptera (grasshoppers or locusts, crickets,
: and katydids). They are sometimes parasitic on beetles, more particularly Carabide e
m or ground beetles, on bees and flies, on caterpillars of butterflies and moths, and even --
.::* otimnailt.
;i', The classification and habits of Mermis have not been given much study, hence
pmopaie alight doubt exists as to the species of Mermis observed in the case of some of
Go t hosts cited, but if one species will affect both lepidopterous larve and grasshoppers,
this is evidence of its not being overparticular as to its host.
(Cix 02
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bage hair-worm has been mentioned, yet considerable ditet. .
opinion prevail. To repeat alleged deaths and poisonings :ini:
might have the opposite effect from that for which this circui p'
prepared. Stories were circulated of whole families being poMe
eating cabbage affected with the hair-worm, sometimes with the:
vration that no one knew personally of their truth, and that
cases were traced to their source and found to be utterly without 1|..
nation. From Tennessee came a report of the death in one towh'.
man, woman, and six children. In portions of the same and in o
S.. .. .... ..:...... .. .
States persons were stated to have been taken ill with pain and v
iting after having eaten cabbage on which the worms were SU"
quently found. Possibly the consumers had been seized with ternl
rary hysteria, imagining that they had unconsciously eaten manyin..
viduals, hence the symptoms. Others were reported severely poison
or dead. In most cases exact localities were furnished, but na.
were wanting. In some cases domestic animals were said to have
poisoned; in others cabbage was fed to them without any ill resuI.a'
The death of a man and wife and their four children in an MflIh l
town after eating snake-worm infested cabbage was reported in severij
newspapers and the family name mentioned:
The entire family of six ate the cabbage at supper and died during the night.-i
cabbage in the garden was examined and found to contain worms the size of a thrmi
8 or 10 inches long and about the color of the cabbage. The cabbage was cut up m4..
fed to animals, and all died. Farmers are destroying all their cabbage. Three Pr
sons in.the neighborhood have recently died after eating cabbage.
In response to inquiry from this office the postmaster of this tow I.
the name of which is omitted for obvious reasons, wrote December 17.
1904, that efforts were made to locate the origin of the account, buttl
without success. i
The hair-worms of the genus Mermis develop within the body ..
their host and, according to various writers, when about full growa
desert it by rupturing the body wall. These individuals are undeveis
oped sexually, and characterized by a mouth consisting of a miniit ..
aperture, and a minute anal point which is generally curved. On iss8U|
ing from the host the worm bores into the earth and conceals its62L;.:'
During this stage in the soil no food is taken, though several mont.i..
may elapse, the creature hibernating and becoming sexually maturi;'
before copulation takes place in the spring. The sexes unite in knot".i
and the female deposits numerous eggs a in the ground. Here ij
a It might be added that hair-worms positively do not develop from horsehair. .
[Cir. 62]
.....H+,- i

S ung, which are thread-like like their parents, hatch and burrow
pward to the surface, and enter as parasites the bodies of caterpillars
nd various soft insects, such as are found under leaves and other
.. ..dbris near the ground.
': The habits of Mermis in Europe have given rise to the belief in a
i:::..ran of worms. Not infrequently in summer time, after a warm rain
t night, swarms of these hair-worms appear on the surface of the
t:: n h, whence the supposition that they are rained down.


S Numbers of hair-worms other than Mermis albicans-the larva of
: 1mycetophilid flies, and some species of myriopods, as also angleworms-
-have been received as undoubted cabbage snakes or as suspects. In
Fact, gullible people throughout the affected region have literally gone
S"hunting for trouble," and have sent everything conceivable except
gi the true cabbage worms (caterpillars of moths and butterflies), which
!11are altogether too well known, as suspected cabbage snakes." Some
f of these-all, with the possible exception of the myriopods and my-
4i1:t cetophilids, of accidental occurrence on cabbage-will be mentioned.
i:;: Mearmia spp.-Several species of Mermis, related to albicans but differing in various
I.particulars, have been received with the usual reports of poisonousness. One species
,: of hair-worm, resembling the "cabbage snake" and possibly the same species, was
t' received from St. Clara, W. Va., in March, 1905, which measured nearly 2 feet in
t length (22 inches) when uncoiled.
S: Paragordius various, a suspect, was not found in cabbage but in water "without
P, g visible means of support," in Virginia.
ii ophilups spp.-Numbers of myriopods of the order Chilopoda, which includes the
Scentipedes and millipedes, were among this number, nearly all belonging to the genus
, Geophilus. There appear to be no positive records of the infliction of serious injury
: to man by any forms of these creatures found in the United States, but certain tropical
: forms are decidedly venomous. These creatures sometimes attack man, if acciden-
Stally handled, but they are not known to occur in cabbage. The poisonous species
w are large and conspicuous, and therefore not likely to be eaten with food. The
species of this genus have carnivorous habits, and there is a possibility that they may
Destroy some forms of cabbage worms and hence may be beneficial.
S Earthwormn.--Specimens of earthworms, in such bad condition that identification
Swas impossible, were received from West Virginia and Ohio, where they were mis-
: taken for the cabbage hair-worm.
Hi Mycetophilids.-The larve of mycetophilid flies were received in several instances,
,' from August until October, 1904, chiefly from Tennessee, Virginia, and South Caro-
iD: na. A correspondent at Duffield, Va., pronounced these maggots poisonous, and said
S that death had resulted from the use of cooked cabbage in which they had been found.
A correspondent at Yokum, Ky., made a similar report.

S In spite of repeated published and written statements that the so-
I called cabbage snake is not poisonous, this fact has not been given
f0r. 62]

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nontoxic quality. however, ur. ijouis leroy, rINasville, Til:.....
corresponded with this office on this topic during August and.:B
ber, 1904, undertook to demonstrate beyond peradventure otf.
that the hair-worm could not possibly cause harm to personas
or cabbage on which it had occurred, and, although he has .
published on the subject, it may be well, for the benefit of skeptical
repeat in substance his conclusions:
During September he wrote that he had carried on a thorough investigation tf
alleged poisonous nature of this hair-worm, and found absolutely nothing to.ic.p
nected with it, either when eaten raw or when cooked, or on cabbage on whic
creature had lived. Efforts to trace every reported case of poisoning in Te..
resulted in ascertaining that they were all without foundation; no authen..tic:,
could be cited; and finally, he says "I am at a loss to understand how such- ...ld.
could gain credence and ever be published for facts in the daily press." In ordi&.:40
determine whether or not the hair-worm had any poisonous qualities he itituttW.
series of experiments, using rabbits, guinea pigs, cats, dogs, horses, and cows, fimi""
that they could all eat the worms, raw or cooked, with impunity. Extracts from: *.&
hair-worms prepared with various solvents were also found to be entirely innocx.....
administered internally (per orem) and injected hypodermically. :
"Believing that possibly these worms might cause decomposition or fermentU i!lt
in the cabbage, with the production of poisonous substances, the result of the dmsi,
position," he allowed samples of cabbage, both raw and cooked, to decompose wS
the worms, and then tested the decomposed material for poisonous properties as a ibw
and in no case was any toxic substance obtained. Chemical analyses of the Wisti;
and the products of decomposition mentioned were made, and he was unable to hWis:
any ptomaine or other isolatable substance of a toxic nature. :
As a result the conclusion was reached "that the cabbage snake fi
entirely harmless, and that public rumors and superstitions are faUir
cies without semblance of foundation." :
.: F, i:.
Secretary of Agriculture.

WASHINGTON, D. C., June 10, 1908.
NOTE.-First issue, May 17, 1905.. :,
[Cir. 62] -,

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