Another insect is wreaking havoc in Maine in the midst of the cicada’s invasion – a poisonous caterpillar.
The browntail moth caterpillar has been seen in multiple counties in Maine and is an invasive species found only there and on Cape Cod.
The caterpillar is roughly an inch and a half long with a fuzzy coat, brown but for two white stripes that flank its back and two red-orange dots near its rear. It has a soft visual texture that makes it seem harmless, charming even, and tempting enough to stroke.
But touch a browntail-moth caterpillar at your own peril.
The hairs of the moth contain poison and can cause a reaction similar to that of poison ivy, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
If the caterpillar hairs get inhaled, they can result in severe breathing problems. Because of this, it’s best to stay away from browntail moths lest they negatively affect you.
“Browntail-moth-caterpillar hairs are barbed and hollow. And inside that hollow tube, there’s a reservoir of a toxin,” says Allison Kanoti, the state entomologist for Maine, which is in the middle of a massive browntail-moth outbreak. Until recently, the insect was constrained to a few coastal areas of the state. This year, they’ve been spotted in nearly every one of Maine’s 16 counties.
In April, experts predicted this summer would be the worst for browntail moth caterpillar infestations since the invasive insect arrived in the state 100 years ago. They were right.
“People are finding them everyplace: on the ground, on the picnic table, on the electrical box, on the corner — you name it,” Britt said. “They are heavily present. Folks will see them all over.”
He added, “We are in the midst of an outbreak.”
There are some people who don’t develop symptoms when coming into contact with these caterpillars. Britt is one of those people because he recently came close to these invaders at a Maine park.
“They were everywhere, and I had absolutely no reaction to them,” he said.
Specific treatments do not exist for the rash developed from touching a browntail moth. Instead, the department suggests treating the rash with calamine lotion.
The browntail caterpillars not only cause itchy rashes in humans but also defoliate many deciduous trees. During years with low moth populations, only a few oak or fruit trees may be affected. When the moths are in large numbers, such as in the past two years, they will feast on any tree with green leaves. This has led to the defoliation of some 200,000 acres of trees across the state, according to reports.
There are many efforts being undertaken across the state to help eradicate the browntail moths. The problem is that many of the chemicals that kill the moths are toxic to the environment, according to State Entomologist Thomas Schmeelk.
The current best option is to clip the silk nests they create in the winter off the trees, a challenge when thousands of nests can inhabit just a few acres.
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