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A new assault on trees

·7 min read

Eastern Ontario trees are facing devastation from European gypsy moths as cottage and home owners in the region battle the destructive caterpillars.

Roughly three weeks ago, Kim Driscoll was sitting on the deck of her cottage in Brown's Bay when her sister noticed the small black caterpillars falling from the trees on a spun web, similar to spiders.

"That was the beginning of the end," said Driscoll.

"I am someone who is OK with bugs, spiders and wasps and beetles, until these things came."

Infestations of gypsy moths typically occur every seven to 10 years, although the last major infestation in Ontario was in 2008.

"They try to find a tree; they love oak trees," said Driscoll.

The hungry caterpillars don't just stop at oak trees; they can also defoliate maple, poplar and willow or other broadleaf trees, according to Ontario government officials.

Geoff McVey, forest manager at the United Counties of Leeds and Grenville, said the devastation caused by European Lymantria dispar, or the gypsy moth, is not the same as that brought on by a now-familiar enemy of the local tree canopy, the emerald ash borer.

"While most trees can recover from a gypsy moth outbreak barring other potentially complicating factors, once an ash tree is infested with the emerald ash borer it is pretty much a death sentence within two to five years," said McVey.

But Brian Porter, a Brockville resident who has long taken an active interest in the local tree canopy, worries about longer-term infestation.

"A tree can stand being defoliated one year and if it's early enough, they might even be able to put out more leaves," said Porter. "But two years in a row, you'll likely lose the tree."

Porter is concerned for the trees on his property at his cottage in Charleston. Already, two of his young pine trees have been infested by the caterpillars.

The gypsy moths have disrupted Driscoll's time at her cottage, where she lives full-time with her husband and mother.

"I'm hyper aware of them. I didn't know we had this many oak trees."

For three weeks she hasn't been able to sit outside and her mother has had to keep the shades drawn so she doesn't have to see the infestation. Her three dogs are also not able to go out as often because they get covered in the caterpillars when they do.

In the immediate area around her cottage, she has roughly 14 oak trees; two have already been devastated by the caterpillars.

"I feel a real need to do something," said Driscoll.

Fed up with the problem, Driscoll and her husband took to the internet for answers on how to reduce the number of gypsy moths.

"We found if you put duct tape on the trees that can minimize them."

The moths are not able to cross the barrier of the sticky tape.

They were also advised to hand-pick them off the trees and leaves, but due to the sheer number of trees and caterpillars on their property that wasn't ideal.

"Hand-picking would be fine if we were still in Peterborough, where we had a tree in our front yard, and a century tree in our backyard," said Driscoll. "We could have handled two trees."

"I used to be someone who was like 'don't kill anything,' and now I'm stepping on them," she added.

[caption id="attachment_1378343" align="alignnone" width="1000"] Kim Driscoll holds a leaf full of gypsy moth caterpillars from one of 14 oak trees on her property at Brown's Bay. (JESSICA MUNRO/Local Journalism Initiative)[/caption]

She also uses a piece of burlap wrapped around the base of the trees, under the duct tape, to try to prevent them from going further up to the foliage.

"We're desperate; the vision is that the caterpillars crawl under it to stay cool," which is when she takes a small broom and dustpan and wipes down the caterpillars.

Like Driscoll, Porter uses the burlap wrapped around the tree as well.

"The trouble is that I'm not there enough. I burlapped one of the oaks,” he said.

"When I'm there I'm able to kill them as they emerge but not being there all the time is really hard to do much of an effect on it."

Currently, the counties do not have a plan to minimize the moths.

"I think everyone in the year of COVID is just doing the very best they can with that and this is just one more thing in this really weird time in history,” said Driscoll.

She adds: "I think typically the plan is for private owners to speak with their community, and say: 'Hey, does anyone want to get together and make plans for next year to have an aerial spray?'"

Driscoll believes she would take the lead on that, but doesn't know enough of her neighbours yet because she only moved to Brockville in September.

McVey notes: "Aerial spraying has been completed in various areas across Southern Ontario but it needs to be planned for the previous season as the logistics are complicated and the cost is high."

"There are various techniques individual landowners can use with limited success depending on how many trees they have," added McVey. "Spraying by hand can be done but it is difficult to get the pesticide BT, which is totally organic, into the tops of the trees."

Driscoll’s neighbor, who asked to be identified simply as John, has also been battling the invasive species, but to a lesser extent.

"They've been abundantly here for a good two weeks."

John noted that some days are worse than others for the caterpillars.

"From what I've noticed, the oak, red oak, and eastern white pine they are all over."

He adds: "My ash trees and hickory are OK. My oak and my coniferous are being hit hard."

"I have a real understanding of invasive species, and how bad they are," said Driscoll. "I mean I know they were but when you’re living it, you realize it’s just so destructive to a natural habitat.”

Driscoll learned through trial and error.

"Before, we were using our bare hands, we had a reaction to them because they’re so bristly.”

Compared to other leaf-feeding caterpillars, the gypsy moth caterpillars are hairy and dark. They also have a distinctive five pairs of blue dots, and six pairs of red dots along their bodies.

Driscoll has created what she calls "the gypsy moth station," which is comprised of two buckets of water that she places the moths in before dousing them in dish soap so they cannot get out.

"I don't know if this is doing anything, I really don't, based on the quantity we have, but I feel this intense need to do something because this is where we live."

"I’ve had visions of sitting on my deck reading novels, but instead I get up and come out and do a round of my trees and picking caterpillars off."

She adds: "The next step is when they turn into the actual moths... we have ordered female pheromones and we've got these big plastic buckets. The plan is to put the pheromone strip in the bottom of the bucket, like a closed-in pail, so hopefully the males fly into the bucket and die."

Female gypsy moths are unable to fly; they will crawl up the trees to lay the eggs for next year.

Gypsy moth females lay egg masses that survive the winter as partially developed larvae, and then in the spring they hatch and continue to grow into the caterpillars and then emerge into moths.

Porter has a plan of attack to reduce the number of moths next year.

"It's a huge infestation we have this year. Once the new egg masses are laid you'll get an idea of what is coming next year," he said.

"Any time I see one of the egg masses I destroy them to keep the numbers down."

“We’re doing the best we can with these awful bugs," Driscoll adds.

Jessica Munro, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brockville Recorder and Times

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