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Leaf-eating gypsy moths leave mark on mid-Atlantic forests this year

6/14/2007
A gypsy moth caterpillar eats a leaf on a tree in Trenton, N.J. This year's infestation has been called one of the largest in recent years. AP photo

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Picnickers in East Coast woods may get some hungry visitors this summer. But at least they won't ask for
sandwiches.

Leaf-eating gypsy moth caterpillars are out in force in parts of
the mid-Atlantic following a warm, dry spring — just the kind of
weather that can make the insects thrive.

Experts are predicting an especially bad year for trees,
primarily oaks, which are the caterpillars' favorite snack. The
moths will also munch on 475 types of foliage.

At their largest, the hungry caterpillars can consume 1 square
foot of foliage per day, according to University of Maryland
entomologist Mike Raupp.

"As soon as the warm weather hits, they eat like dynamos,
juggernauts,'' Raupp said.

In Maryland, 50,000 acres of forests were sprayed last month
with a bacterial pesticide, the most acreage sprayed since 1995.
Defoliation there appears to be worse than last year, especially
near the Pennsylvania line, according to the state agriculture
department.

Nearly 700,000 acres of Pennsylvania forests — primarily in the
Poconos and central Pennsylvania — were defoliated last year
because of the persistent bugs, and the infestation could be worse
in 2007, said Donald Eggen, director of the Office of Forest Pest
Management for the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry.

Homeowners in the Washington, D.C., area are reporting green
trees "disappearing in the blink of an eye,'' Raupp said.

In New Jersey, this year's infestation has been called one of
the largest in years. The state's agriculture department expects
more than 200,000 acres to be defoliated this year, up from 125,000
last year.

While spraying can kill gypsy moths' larvae at very early
stages, not every caterpillar-covered tree can be treated, said
Greg Hoover, an entomologist at Penn State University.

"In all my years as a forest entomologist, I have never
witnessed the quick development of larvae as I have in 2007,'' said
Hoover, who has worked at Penn State for nearly two decades.

Most trees in the region are as full and green as they will be
all year. Trees that lose leaves now may not immediately die, but
re-sprouting leaves in the middle of the season can stress them.

Spraying typically occurs in the early- to mid-spring in areas
where scientists think there might be high infestations. Spraying
is timed to try to catch the caterpillars just after they hatch
from eggs laid the previous summer.

After hatching, caterpillars try to feast on foliage, then
return to a "resting'' stage before transforming into moths.

Female moths lay eggs, primarily on tree trunks, restarting the
cycle. Cool, wet springs can lead to the rise of viral and fungal
diseases that attack the eggs, keeping populations down.

Homeowners who suspect gypsy moths should contact forest or
environmental officials to see if they need spraying, Eggen said.

The critters first appeared in the United States in the 1860s
after an amateur entomologist who settled outside Boston brought
them from France. He was conducting an experiment on trees near his
house when some of the larvae escaped.

Since then, gypsy moths have expanded about five miles a year,
according to Christopher Tipping, an assistant professor of biology
at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown. They've spread as far
west as Oregon and as far south as Virginia.

The U.S. Forest Service has been working with some states
bordering those with high gypsy moth populations to try to suppress
their advance.

Gypsy moths don't seem to be as serious a problem in the Midwest
this year. Michigan, for example, didn't have a statewide spraying
program for the first time in 20 years, said Michael Philip of the
state's agriculture department.

But eradicating the gypsy moth is nearly impossible. More gypsy
moths this year will likely mean more eggs ready to hatch in 2008.

"We have to gird ourselves for a pretty serious year next
year,'' Raupp said.