My home is in a six-acre woods, no lawn, just trees. Oh, there's a lot of English Ivy and Periwinkle surrounding the house and barn, but the rest is tall maple trees with some beech and oaks. There are a few ash trees and the Ash Borer has killed them, so I haven't been too concerned about my woods dying off because of that.
This atmosphere makes it nice to do nature photography right from the house. In fact, I was sitting behind the camera on my back porch the other day attempting to catch a male hummingbird just right. The little guys are quick fliers and you have to be alert to them buzzing about, so my eyes were concentrating on small movements. However, there was something else catching my attention too, a small brown moth flying around erratically. It was annoying when hummers were my goal but it also gives me a lot of concern. These moths are male gypsy moths and there seems to be a whole lot of them this summer.
My concern is that they can defoliate a forest with their massive leaf eating. They will probably not kill my trees but they will weaken them, and maybe another stressful condition could cause a few to die. When there is a massive breakout of gypsy moths, they have been known to defoliate acres of forests.
The gypsy moth was brought into this country (yep, another non-native species) back in 1869 by someone hoping they would cross with the silkworm and make a hardier species. Well, that didn't work very well, and we soon found that was a big mistake for our forests.
Starting with the emergence of hundreds of itty bitty caterpillars from the egg masses, these critters head up a tree. Not only do they eat the leaves on that tree, they actually “parachute” to other trees by producing a thread of silk that carries them with the aid of the wind. They will grow and shed their skin several times during the next couple of weeks, consuming large amounts of leaves to do so. The young caterpillars feed during the day, and as they get older and larger they switch to feeding at night, spending the day resting in clusters on the sides of the tree trunk.
As a caterpillar grows, the fuzzy bristles that cover its body become stiff and act as a protective coating to keep insect-eating birds at bay. These bristles can cause a stinging sensation on human skin, so care needs to be of concern if it's handled. Once it become big and fat, the caterpillar creates a shelter of silken threads on the side of the tree which turns into a cocoon. A short time later, out comes the adult moth, wings and all.
The moths do not feed, they just look for mates and lay eggs. Male gypsy moths can fly, but the females cannot, so the ladies hike back up the same tree they grew up on while the lads fly about seeking new girlfriends.
The eggs are laid in a light brown mat of protective material, made from the bristly hairs from the caterpillar's body, that will keep the eggs (numbering several hundred in each mass) safe from rain, snow, frost, ice and egg-eating insects. The following spring they hatch and the cycle begins all over again.
Now here comes the curious part: Some years there are gypsy moths literally everywhere and other years you will be challenged to find any at all. This year the population is high. Next year they may be all but non-existent.
So, what can be done to cut down on the losses that gypsy moths inflict? Well, really, not a lot. There are sprays and scent traps, and there's a trick — wrapping burlap around trees — to lure in the night crawlers so they can be squashed the next day. In your yard some of these things will help, but when there is a large population it is almost impossible to control them.
For me, I'm hoping all those guys flying around in my woods don't find any girlfriends.
Doug Domedion, outdoorsman and nature photographer, resides in Medina. Contact him at (585) 798-4022 or firstname.lastname@example.org .