A browntail moth caterpillar is shown Wednesday between Jameson Dow, left, and classmate Charlie Ferris, both 10, in a tree at Ferris’s home in Waterville. Dow discovered that the caterpillars had invaded a tree in the front yard of the Ferris home. They were able to spot four of the caterpillars on low-hanging limbs. The caterpillar, which has two distinctive reddish dots, has poisonous hairs that can cause a rash if exposed to skin. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

WATERVILLE — Cassie Julia-Ferris and her family members broke out in a terrible rash two weeks ago, not knowing that their beloved crabapple tree in the front yard was infested with browntail moth caterpillars.

But she and her husband and two children were familiar with browntails, as they had been afflicted with the rash a couple of years ago while on a camping trip in Damariscotta.

They never imagined it would happen in their own yard, near Waterville Senior High School.

“You really don’t know how awful it is until you experience it firsthand,” Julia-Ferris said Wednesday. “They are totally a blight. The browntail are a blight. It’s horrible to think that Waterville would suddenly be infested by them.”

City officials are exploring ways to address the problem after City Councilor Thomas Klepach, D-Ward 3, spoke at length about the issue at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, where he reported many people, including Julia-Ferris, are being affected by the scourge of browntail.

“It’s a public health nuisance,” Klepach said.

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

Browntail moths were first introduced in Somerville, Massachusetts, from Europe more than 100 years ago, but have been steadily becoming more prevalent in Maine in recent years. Meanwhile, severe drought conditions last summer were a boon for the caterpillar in the region, as populations along the Maine coast have continued expanding into Waldo, Kennebec and Somerset counties.

In Waterville, the browntail moth caterpillars have become more noticeable this spring. City Manager Steve Daly reported that several Public Works Department employees have experienced rashes from working in the city’s parks and ballfields, as well as from trimming greenery on roadsides.

“I think his concern is palpable in that I think it struck a note with the City Council,” Daly said Wednesday of Klepach. “It certainly has with me. This is obviously a nuisance and an irritant to adults, but I would express more concern about how it might affect the daily lives of children over the summertime who will be playing outdoors. Children don’t deal very well with managing pain.”

Klepach told councilors he received about 20 letters from constituents with photographs of the “really nasty looking rashes” they got from the browntail hairs. Klepach, a faculty member in the biology department at Colby College, said he has spoken at length to experts about the issue and how to deal with it.

“We have a real problem right now in Waterville and we need to get on top of it,” he said.

The Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention notes that the browntail’s hairs can become airborne after being dislodged from living or dead caterpillars.

A browntail moth caterpillar is shown Wednesday morning after falling from a tree near Head of Falls in Waterville and onto a notepad. The caterpillar, which has two distinctive reddish dots, has poisonous hairs that can cause a rash if exposed to skin. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

“Most people affected by the hairs develop a localized rash that will last for a few hours up to several days but on some sensitive individuals, the rash can be severe and last for several weeks,” according to the CDC on its website. “The rash results from both a chemical reaction to a toxin in the hairs and a physical irritation as the barbed hairs become embedded in the skin. Respiratory distress from inhaling the hairs can be serious.”

The CDC says the caterpillars are active from April to late June, though the hairs remain toxic throughout the summer but get washed into the soil.

The browntail typically infest oak, pear and apple trees, according to Klepach. Waterville Council Chairman Erik Thomas said browntail are “all over town,” and a citywide approach must be taken to address the problem.

Klepach suggested the city apply to the CDC to have browntail declared a public health nuisance, enabling Waterville to spend public funds on private lands and right-of-ways to knock back the browntail moth situation. Klepach said he received ballpark estimates of what it would cost to manage the problem.

Three or four people working five days a week could cost $50,000 for next year and $25,000 a year for the next two years after that, he said.

Daly said Wednesday that arborists have said June 15 is the deadline for treating browntail this year. The city is going to see if something can be done for this year, according to Daly.

“If not, we’ll talk about putting something in the budget for next year, to begin a management program,” he said.

Klepach, he said, continued researching Wednesday about how browntails can be managed and who can do it.

Meanwhile, Julia-Ferris said her family will do something to treat their tree, which is becoming ragged and less beautiful because of the browntails. But not all families are able to afford to have their trees treated, and without a comprehensive plan, it will not work.

A browntail moth caterpillar is shown above Charlie Ferris, 10, in a tree at Ferris’s home Wednesday afternoon in Waterville. Ferris and classmate Jameson Dow found four of the caterpillars in the front yard tree. The caterpillar, which has two distinctive reddish dots, has poisonous hairs that can cause a rash if exposed to skin. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

There are hundreds of caterpillars on her tree, for the first time ever, she said.

“We’ve never had anything like this before,” she said. “I can’t kill them all. They’re in the tree, they’re underneath the leaves. It’s like the virus — it can get out of hand pretty easily if it’s not addressed. Somebody’s going to have to deal with it. Otherwise, we’re going to have a plague on our hands.”

Julia-Ferris fears that businesses in the city that have outdoor venues will also be impacted by the browntails.

“This is a problem that’s bigger than just my yard and the yard up the street,” she said.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.