My sister is an invasive pest. No wait, my sister has an invasive pest. Last Saturday I got an urgent call from her because she had tent caterpillars on her purple leaf plum tree in New Jersey. I asked her if the plum tree had a ‘tent’ in the trunk of the tree and she said no. So, I knew it wasn’t the tent caterpillar because they don’t crawl from tree to tree. It’s also a bit late in the year for this pest of our cherry trees. We do find them in large numbers on a tree though. So, I questioned her about what they looked like. She said fuzzy and black. Well, that could be a tent caterpillar but I still wasn’t convinced. So I asked her to send me a picture.
Sure enough she had tons of large fuzzy black caterpillars on her plum tree, but they weren’t tent caterpillars, they were gypsy moths. Now anyone who grew up in the northeast knows this invasive leaf eating pest. I was a paper delivery girl back in the day when kids did it and you actually walked from house to house. I distinctly remember hearing the gypsy moths eat — yes — hearing them. And I remember caterpillar poo falling on me as I went from house to house. I don’t really remember being grossed out by this which seems pretty strange doesn’t it?!
The gypsy moth is one of the invasive species we don’t want to get started here. The caterpillars are voracious feeders and they love oak trees. They will eat all the leaves off large stands of trees of all types — even pines if there is nothing else. Rockdale County is one of three counties in Georgia that has had an outbreak of gypsy moth. A few years back they were brought in on some bluestone from Pennsylvania and took hold in Olde Town. We caught them early and were able to successfully spray ten acres and eradicate them. We got lucky. Believe it or not, Gypsy moth was brought to the United States on purpose — just like kudzu. Someone thought they’d be good silk producers but they soon escaped and got out of control.
So, what did I tell my sister to do? I calmly told her the first thing to do was go to the drug store and buy 70 percent isopropyl alcohol. Then I told her to dump some out and put as many caterpillars as she could in the bottle to drown. She kind of paused and then said, "But there’s too many caterpillars. That won’t get rid of them." I chuckled when I told her that this process wasn’t to kill them — but was to collect samples for my 4-H Forestry Judging Team. I told her after she collected the samples she could spray Bt on the tree or trap them with burlap and destroy them since it was only one tree. She called me back a short while later and had collected 40 of them for me with her ‘caterpillar stick.’ She wouldn’t touch them with her hand. She also informed me that they really didn’t seem to want to go swimming in the alcohol. Smart caterpillars.
When I was in my teens, my little sister certainly was invasive — getting into my clothes, spying on me and my friends, stealing the candy I hoarded from Halloween and Easter……. Today, I’ll say she’s a wonderful sister to collect gypsy moth caterpillars for me. When I go to visit her in July, I’ll be looking for the adult moths to bring back for the Forestry team — dead of course. The gypsy moths are the true invasive pests and not my sister after all.
Jule-Lynne Macie is the Rockdale County Extension Coordinator. She can be reached at (770)278-7373.