HARPSWELL — As spring approaches, voters will have the opportunity to approve new research on the local browntail moth population.

According to a draft warrant article for the March 10 town meeting, voters will decide whether to allocate just over $9,500 for the University of Maine to conduct studies on browntail moths, and ways to naturally reduce their number in Harpswell.

The vote follows a special Board of Selectmen meeting last November with University of Maine entemology Professor Eleanor Groden, director of the university’s Browntail Moth Research Project. The program is conducted in collaboration with the Maine Forest Service, and aims to pinpoint the cause of the insect’s spread throughout Maine and eco-friendly ways to fight it.

The infestation has become an annual nuisance and health threat in the midcoast and coastal southern Maine. Hairs from browntail moth caterpillars can cause allergic reactions in some people, ranging from rashes to serious respiratory problems, which has made their regional surge in recent years problematic.

Communities throughout the region are seeking ways to contain the infestations, including with pesticide spraying that sometimes raises environmental and public health concerns.

If the warrant article passes, Groden and her students will conduct a year of work in Harpswell, taking samples of moth nests, testing different eco-friendly pest control techniques, and composing a report to the town.

Harpswell’s pesticide ordinance, which was revised in March 2016, prohibits spraying within 25 feet of the shoreline to protect marine life. Aerial spraying of chemicals is also banned.

As a result, Mary Ann Nahf, chairwoman of the town’s Conservation Commission, instructs residents to clip browntail nests from trees in the winter and dunk them in soapy water to prevent springtime hatching.

Nahf said an increasing number of town residents in recent years have reached out to the commission regarding what to do about moth nests. In addition to the clipping and soaking method, homeowners can also hire licensed applicators to inject trees on their property with pesticides.

Stem injection, however, is only allowed in Harpswell with a waiver, which requires a town hearing to be granted.

At the selectmen’s Feb. 8 meeting, Nahf voiced the group’s support of the research.

For many people in Harpswell, she said, treating nests independently within the parameters of the pesticide ordinance is not ideal.

“The problem is, those remedies are either prohibitively expensive for many of our residents – stem injection, for example – or practically impossible, (like) clipping in mid-winter because so many of the nests are too high to reach safely,” she said.

If voters approve the funds, Groden will travel to Harpswell in late March to evaluate the density of moth populations at different sites. The researchers will take samples from webs at each site back to the university lab in Orono, set them up to allow caterpillar emergence, and examine them to determine survival over the winter, parasitism and disease level. They will also return to Harpswell to monitor caterpillar emergence and feeding activity at each of the designated sites.

In mid-May, the team will conduct field trials to evaluate the efficiency of at least three organically certified and biorational options for caterpillar control with a licensed pesticide applicator.

The team would ultimately assess the impact of the treatments on the browntail population and their natural enemies, collect pupation nests and monitor them in the lab, and revisit the treatment sites to monitor the presence of winter webs in February 2019.

“Widespread spraying has been tried in the past and has resulted in killing of marine life, (which is) not a good option for our community,” Nahf said in support of the study. “We need to better understand the geographic distribution and severity of the infestation throughout Harpswell and hopefully develop new remedies to address the problem.”

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected] Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente.

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