Columbia, SC - COLUMBIA, SC (WMBF) - Speak softly and carry a big stick. Forest health experts with the SC Forestry Commission also say that may be the perfect way for dealing with a certain pest now in season: the Eastern tent caterpillar.
Each year South Carolinians notice tent-like structures forming in the branch crotches of their cherry, crab apple, and apple trees. While not destructive, they are unsightly and most homeowners would prefer not to have those silken, webby circus tents woven into their landscaping.
Laurie Reid, an insect and disease specialist with the Forestry Commission suggests merely swiping at the tent masses with a long pole or stick.
"It sounds crude, but it is the safest way to deal with a pest that is merely offensive or annoying," Reid said. "Chemicals aren't necessary for this one."
With the tents come the insect itself. The Eastern tent caterpillar has long brown hairs, a white stripe on the back which is bordered by yellow-brown and black lines, and blue and black spots on the sides.
It can also be found on ash, birch, blackgum, willow, witchhazel, maple, oaks, poplar, peach and plum trees, although your cherry trees are its preferred hosts.
The tent building is just one phase of this insect's year-long lifecycle. Each summer (usually in June or July), the adult female moth will lay 100-300 eggs in a dark brown varnish-like egg mass around a small twig. The caterpillars do not hatch from the eggs until the following spring, typically in March and April when the cherry buds are breaking.
After hatching, the caterpillars collectively make the tent and begin feeding on the newly emerging leaves. The caterpillars will also venture out from the protective nest to feed. After several weeks, the fully-grown caterpillars will leave the nest for a final time to find a protected place to make their cocoons (pupate).
Early this summer, the light brown adult moths will emerge from the cocoons. After mating occurs, the female will lay eggs and the cycle will begin again.
While a little nibbling occurs, these insects do not completely defoliate your trees. Eaten leaves will reappear quickly.
"It's unfortunate for them," Reid said, "but they are often mistaken for the fall webworm which we see in autumn."
The fall webworm gnaws on the leaves of more than 100 species of hardwood trees. Knocking down the Eastern tent caterpillar habitat in the spring may often be a case of guilt by association.