Dance of the gypsy moth

May 18, 1993

Thank goodness for Maryland that the gypsy moth caterpillar doesn't have an assassin's sense of timing to accompany its voracious appetite.

When the leaf-eating invader was most prolific in Maryland in 1990, this state had a healthy budget to fight it; of the 16 or so states most damaged by the gypsy moth, Maryland was second in 1990 in acres sprayed (and defoliated).

The critter isn't as prevalent here today. That's good, because the recession has gobbled its own path through state and county budgets. If the gypsy moth exploded through Maryland now with the ferocity of a few years back, we'd be experiencing, in the words of one entomologist, "winter in July."

Actually, some regions of the state are still waging war against the little beastie. When the species migrated to Maryland from New England and then Pennsylvania in the late 1960s, it took a right turn at Chesapeake Bay and picnicked through northern, central and western portions of the state. Now, it's finally catching up to Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore, which suffered nearly all of the state's gypsy moth-related defoliation last summer.

An aerial counterattack has already begun with spraying on both bay shores; Western Maryland comes next. But Baltimore City, Howard, Harford and four other counties aren't doing any spraying at all, either because they have ample green in their forests or insufficient green in the bank.

Even in regions being treated, however, homeowners who notice the caterpillars on their trees should contact their extension agents for tips on eradicating them. Ignore the crawlers and you'll get to celebrate Mother's Day '94 in a big way: A female XTC averages 1,000 eggs in an egg mass, and those eggs would probably produce 500 females next year, laying their own 1,000 eggs each.

At their peak, the moths transformed state woodlands into scenes from a Stephen King novel: Verdant forests turned ashen seemingly overnight, and oaks and birches coated with the caterpillars appeared to writhe. Fortunately, in addition to the agriculture department's "suppression" program, natural predators emerged in recent years -- certain mice, beetles, fungi and viruses.

But sections spared this year shouldn't get complacent. Nature is cyclical. Massachusetts, where the European import was introduced in a silking experiment-gone-awry, has suffered this modern-day plague for 100 years.

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