The Curse of the Caterpillar

That chk-chk-chk you can hear all over the Catskills right now is not New York City’s funkiest white boys come to play in the woods. Nor is it the sound of spring rain – at least not when the sky is blue. And while I’d love to say it’s the pitter-patty of tiny feet, that chk-chk-chk sound is still audible when the babies are down for their naps.

No, what you’re hearing is the sound of caterpillars pooping. Seriously. The tent caterpillar has become the scourge of the Catskills these last few years – and right now that scourge is at its peak. It is impossible to move around these parts right now without running into, walking over or being deluged by them. They are so prevalent that you can, literally, hear them poop.

We were first introduced to the tent caterpillar three springs ago at our weekend place in Hunter when we noticed cobwebs in the trees. Those turned out to be the “tents” from which the caterpillars get their name. Soon enough we could see them moving up and down the tree branches, feeding themselves off the leaves as they steadily wove their tents to house themselves. According to the Ohio State University’s web site

One or two colonies can completely defoliate small trees. Periodic, major outbreaks result in numerous colonies in larger trees which can also do considerable defoliation. Since this defoliation occurs early in the season, the plants must set out new leaves at considerable energy expense.

The tree in the foreground has been completely defoliated by tent caterpillars, whose nests are clearly visible in the intersection of the branches.

As the caterpillars emerge from these tents for good and start spinning their silky way down off the branches and onto terra firma – frequently dropping the last few feet in the process like parachutists coming to land – the two-inch furry things actually look quite cute. We even left them alone as they started climbing our exterior walls. It was only when we noticed cocoons filling almost every inch of our under-eaves that we realized we might have a pest problem. And when those cocoons hatched moths – many thousands of them – it was too late to do anything about it. The moths, apart from driving you plain crazy when you live in a brightly lit house in the otherwise dark countryside, and apart from the fact that they will of course eat your shirts if you let them, do have the compensation of only living for a few days. During that time, however, they mate and lay eggs in the trees to repeat the whole annoying annual cycle.

Compared to rats and cockroaches in New York City, or locusts in Egypt, tent caterpillars are not the most evil or disgusting of creatures. But the sheer number of them is, honestly, overwhelming. It’s not been uncommon for people walking down Phoenicia’s Main Street these last few weeks to do a double take as they notice the ground moving under their feet. And when I went out on a bike ride two weeks ago, so many of them were spinning down off the trees that I came home with my shirt and helmet covered in caterpillars, some crawling all over me, others splattered by the force with which I hit them, leaving brown-green blotches all over my shirt.

It’s not just the trees they fall from. As they climb up a wall – or, to use a specific example, my screen door in Phoenicia – they frequently clamber over each other, forming a vertical layer of caterpillars three or four deep, and as they lift their front ends up – to, presumably, sense out a nice dark under-eave – they often succumb to gravity and fall to the floor. Chk chk chk. It’s distracting as hell.

Tent caterpillars climbing the screen door. Every time it shuts another few dozen fall to the floor, until the ground starts moving under your feet.

A tent caterpillar is easy enough to kill. Just tread on one and you will learn that it is green inside. (Must be all those leaves they eat.) But trying to rid yourself of a garden full is absolutely and completely impossible. Last Wednesday evening, around 7pm, I spent thirty minutes with a broom sweeping them off the various walls and exteriors of the house, frequently slicing them open in the process. I probably swept near a thousand off the walls, killing at least several hundred in the process. (Though I’m not a Buddhist, I am a vegetarian, so I don’t get a great thrill out of killing Mother Nature’s creatures, but sometimes you just have to claim your turf.) An hour later, I went back outdoors. It was like I’d never taken them on. By the following afternoon, there were twice as many as when I’d performed my genocide. It’s a losing battle.

Solutions to the tent caterpillar scourge are few and far between. You can spray the tents with BT insecticide when they first show up in the spring – though given how high and far and wide they nest in the trees, that’s easier said than done. You can cover the trunk of your tree with a thin layer of Crisco, like our friends who run the Phoenicia Belle B&B just did, and get yourself in the local paper as a result. What the paper failed to note was that the Crisco attracts bears. Big ones. Probably not a good idea.

Ultimately then, you’re reduced to either attacking them with a firm broom, a good boot sole, or letting nature take its course. The tent caterpillar population apparently rises and falls every few years, and this spring is, so we’re encouraged to believe, the peak of their pestiness. That’s good news. Because, besides the sheer nuisace of them, tent caterpillars attract flies, who lay eggs in the bodies of the caterpillars that in turn produce maggots. There were so many flies around last summer that locals are convinced the authorities unwisely unleashed them to combat the caterpillar problem; though I can’t find consummate proof, it’s the sort of rural myth that one can easily believe.

And so, until the caterpillars turn to cocoons, the cocoons to moths and the flies come in to take over, we walk the streets and the wood shaking them off our clothes, crushing them under our feet and listening to that distinctive percussive sound: chk chk chk.

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1 Comment(s)

  1. Andrew

    7 June, 2006 at 3:46 pm

    regarding your comment about controlling the caterpillar tents with Bt…spraying the tents will provide absolutely no control. The caterpillar must injest the bt while eating as the bacillus is effective only in the gut of the insect. Spraying it on the tent or even on the caterpillar itself will do nothing…it has to be sprayed on the foliage.


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