A browntail moth caterpillar feeds on a plant. Photo courtesy of Maine Forest Service

In May, spring comes carefully out of nowhere. You wake up one day to see all the trees are suddenly in full green leaf. More leaves than the trees themselves can count. Shadbush, dogwood and forsythia changing everything, teasing, and then suddenly apple blossoms appear like a silent whistling roar. Carefully placed as if by hand along the roadside and fields so as not to break anything when the color hits.

Springtime is lovetime, you think.

But guess what — there are devils.

I’m not going to bother you with nature’s cruelest joke, whose punch line springs every May when the days are finally warm enough to go outside — into welt-raising swarms of black flies. Not mentioning the mosquitoes that have turned up in legions about three weeks early this year. And nothing about the ticks that have been intercepted lumbering across pant legs and carrying inscrutable diseases, like the one that disabled the kidneys of one of my otherwise-healthy basketball teammates two summers ago. “You can’t even go in the woods any more” because of them, to quote Montville poet Jacqueline Moore. Damn straight.

No. The detail here is the report of my distant neighbor Leon Tsomides that his grounds are rife with browntail moth caterpillars. Leon should know, and does know — he’s a retired state entomologist.

A browntail moth caterpillar seen this month in Troy. Photo courtesy of Leon Tsomides

He sent me a photo of one of his caterpillars. Pretty little thing, with richly dark body, white patches symmetrically fringing each side, two bright orange dots at the tail end and a cloud of delicate-looking, tan-colored hairs. This larva appears to be the complete argument for an intelligent-design universe whose fundamental force is the beauty that through the green fuse drives the flower.


Gotcha, you romantic neoplatonic idiots. (Note: self-description.) The hairs are highly toxic. I can’t state the factual truth any plainer than the Maine CDC:
“The browntail moth caterpillar has tiny poisonous hairs that cause dermatitis similar to poison ivy on sensitive individuals. People may develop dermatitis from direct contact with the caterpillar or indirectly from contact with airborne hairs. The hairs become airborne from either being dislodged from the living or dead caterpillar or they come from cast skins with the caterpillar molts. 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. 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.”

Get rid of them! Exorcise! They start spinning webs in the fall in oak, apple, crabapple, birch, cherry and other hardwood trees. The webs are usually no larger than the palm of your hand and tend to be located on the ends of branches. This is different from the Eastern tent caterpillar webs, which can be much larger and usually attach where branches divide or meet the trunk.

We found a couple of browntail webs along the driveway. We clipped, bagged and trashed them. There are a couple of tent caterpillar webs high in a crabapple tree, but no others so far. Just a mile or so away, Leon has so many browntail webs he can’t keep up with them. He theorizes the moths spread on wind running easterly down Unity Pond and blowing straight over the ridge into his woods off the Ward Hill Road.

There’s no such thing as coincidences in nature, as far as I can tell. The caterpillars eat hardwood foliage, so naturally they start showing up as the leaves are popping. They can kill your rugosa rose. They normally stay around through June, then morph into the pupal stage around July. Hairs are floating around the first half of the summer, and if you’re going into infected woods, it’s suggested to wear personal protective equipment, or PPE, to keep the hairs out of your lungs.

And the caterpillars hitchhike, so the Maine Forest Service warns you to park cars away from infested trees, check vehicles for crawling hairy hellions and carefully remove them before driving. If we think really hard, maybe we can stop this spread.

“To be the victim of one’s own mistake is bad enough, but to be the victim of the other guy’s mistake is intolerable,” wrote Henry Miller, the master purveyor of unseemly poetic truth, long before widespread worries about climate change and its effects. The browntail moth was introduced into Massachusetts from Europe in 1897. It then spread to Cape Cod, coastal Maine and the Maritimes, and by the 1960s faltered somewhat.

But as winter temperatures have risen on the hunchback of carbon emissions, the browntails have spread. Like the damned deer ticks.

It’s a strange world. The phoebes are flying and floating in love like the very spirits of the singing season itself, and you want to think the vibration in the apple blossoms is the very last word on the everlasting Good. Viva sweet spring. But there are goat-footed devils in the details of the woods, whistling far and wee. And we’re complicit in the mischief.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at dwilde.naturalist@gmail.com. His book “Summer to Fall” is available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.

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