A pest that causes rashes and respiratory problems is prevalent in the Waterville area, the Maine Forest Service has found.

A browntail moth nest in an apple tree on Cushing’s Island. File photo

Albion, Belgrade, China, Vassalboro and Winslow were among 54 municipalities cited by the Maine Department of Agriculture Conservation & Forestry as having high populations of browntail moth caterpillars in the department’s annual browntail moth survey.

“One of the most important things, especially this time of year, is that if you are living in an area that has browntail moths and you want to check out your yard to see if your trees have browntail moth webs in them,” said Tom Schmeelk, a forest entomologist with the Maine Forest Service. “The silk from the webs will shine with a whitish color and really stand out.”

Microscopic, poisonous hairs shed by browntail moth caterpillars cause rashes similar to those caused by poison ivy. If inhaled, the hairs may even cause respiratory issues in those with sensitivities.

The state’s survey found enough damage from caterpillars, especially in Waldo, Knox, Kennebec, Cumberland and Androscoggin counties, that it could be tracked from the air. This past summer saw high populations due to dry weather.

 

Standing with the sun to one’s back, landowners can survey their own yards for browntail moth winter webs, which can be seen at the tips of tree branches. Webs will shine in the sunlight because of the silk in the web.

Winter is the best time to mitigate the impacts of browntail moths. The insects are cocooned in leaves on trees during the winter. Webs can be clipped. Trees can be injected or sprayed to help manage the pests, which become active again in the spring when the weather warms. Each web can have between 25 and 400 caterpillars. Webs should be soaked in soapy water after clipping.

“There’re definitely best management practices,” Schmeelk said. “The number one thing is that we recommend people to clip webs if they can reach them. Clipping the webs really matters.”

Browntail moths were introduced in Somerville, Massachusetts, from Europe in 1897. The insect spread throughout New England, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia by 1913. The caterpillars decreased until the 1960s, when they built up populations in Maine.

The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation & Forestry is conducting its overwinter survey now and results will be available in the early spring. All towns have been notified.

“We’re trying to get word out to towns sooner than later,” Schmeelk said. “We’re basically trying to give the towns a heads up.”

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