As gypsy moths invade Litchfield County, expert says don't panic

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox

Sharon resident Kym Zwick said the first sign that something unusual was going on this year was all the mud outside of her home.

“I seemed to be tracking mud everywhere,” she said. “I couldn’t understand where this mud was coming from.”

She soon realized it was caterpillar droppings.

“It poops out of the trees and when it rains it almost turns into a mud,” she said. “We started seeing more and more of the caterpillars. It had then gotten to the point where it was uncontrollable, in the last couple of weeks.”

Zwick was witnessing a gypsy moth infestation, which has destroyed a large portion of the trees on the 8 acres of woods behind her house.

During the 15 years she has lived on the property, and the 20 years her husband Kevin Hill has lived there, neither one of them have seen anything like this before.

Russell Plumb, a certified arborist with Sawing High Climbers in Kent, said the damage caused by gypsy moths has been around for a long time.

“Back in the late ‘80s, they almost defoliated the whole of New England,” he said.

He suspected there may be in issue with them this spring, when he noticed an infestation of gypsy droppings last year at his Kent home. This winter, he saw a lot of egg sacs on the trees.

“That was a sign that we were going to have an infestation this year,” he said.

He said he has recently received many “pretty distressed” calls from area residents with similar concerns — and some saying gypsy moths ate all the leaves off their trees.

“They saw little brown pellets on the ground and they didn’t know what it was, and it sounded like it was raining in the forest from all the poop banging off the other leaves.”

According to Plumb, some of the trees he saw lost 50 percent of their foliage due to the gypsy moths, which are about two-and-a-half to three inches long. They are dark in color with red spots along their spine and look “furry,” he said. Each egg sac has between 200 to 300 eggs in it. It takes about one month to completely defoliate an entire garden. But they do not harm humans.

Getting rid of the moths

In typical years, when there is an average amount of rainfall, a fungus called maimaiga naturally kills off the gypsy moths.

“The fungus lives in the soil and you need the soil to be moist for at least 48 hours. Then, the fungus takes off and starts to spoliate and comes out of the ground and goes through the air,” Plumb said. “It takes one spore to land on a caterpillar and then it rapidly multiplies and starts to rot the caterpillar.”

If there are heavy rains from May to late June, the fungus keeps the caterpillar population under control, he said.

However, the rains didn’t come early enough this year, and many residents of Litchfield County towns have noticed.

On the Kent CT Community Facebook page, Zwick’s before and after photos of the damage gypsy moths caused to her property drew several dozen comments and photo exchanges with similar complaints and concerns.

Norfolk resident David Beers, a certified forest practitioner, said however, there is no cause for too much concern at this point.

“It’s the first defoliation and almost all the trees will survive this just fine,” he said. “All these trees that got defoliated will put out a second set of leaves before the end of the summer, and in another month, those areas that got defoliated will look a lot better,” Beers said.

If there’s no drought this summer, the fungus will rebound and there won’t be another outbreak of the moths, according to Beers.

This winter, if masses of eggs are seen on yard trees, aside from hiring an arborist to spray, Beers recommends scraping them off and dumping them into soapy water.

“The soapy water will break apart the membrane of the eggs and kill them,” Beers said.

The worst-case scenario, according to Beers, is if there is another drought and defoliation next summer.

“The trees will have a much harder time handling that,” he said. “Putting out a second set of leaves is hard on their energy reserves.”

sfox@milfordmirror.com