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Browntail caterpillar woes hit lake area in Camden this year

Maine Forest Service lists precautions for avoiding caterpillar's toxic hairs
By Susan Mustapich | Jun 25, 2019
Courtesy of: Hamilton Hall Browntail moth caterpillars mass atop a tire on a car parked outside for a few months near Lake Megunticook in Camden.

CAMDEN — Concerns are growing in Camden about browntail moth caterpillars, the rash caused by their toxic hairs and the stripping away of leaves on trees in the Lake Megunticook area.

This year, massive caterpillar infestations are taking place in a relatively small number of areas in Camden. At the June 18 Select Board meeting, Chairman Bob Falciani said he is interested in coming up with the best approach for public lands and education for private land owners.

At the meeting, three board members heard from Public Works Director Rick Seibel and two residents whose trees have been devastated by the caterpillars, and who have been affected by the toxic hairs.

Residents Hamilton Hall and Judy Gove described seeing thousands of browntail moth caterpillars on their properties, the complete defoliation of trees, and impacts on quality of life.

Hall, who lives on Lake Megunticook, said June 24 that last year, he noticed the tops of oak trees around Lake Megunticook appeared to be bare, or looked like they were covered with a brown crust. He does not recall seeing the nests the caterpillars make at the tops of trees last year, or even seeing more than one browntail moth caterpillar on his property.

This spring, the time the caterpillars are most active, Hall said it looked liked there were millions crawling on his and his neighbors' properties. Some crawl down from the tops of trees, and others drop from trees and crawl up other trees, he said. They will also crawl up anything they can find. Hall has photos taken June 9 of caterpillars climbing sides of buildings, posts and one photo of a mass of caterpillars that had reached the top of a tire, and did not know where else to go.

Now he sees what he hopes are dead caterpillars, possibly killed by a fungus that grows in rainy weather. It is also possible that what he is seeing are the husks of caterpillars, which shed their skin several times, he said.

Hall said, "it feels like a plague where the locusts come and eat everything, and it's itchy and uncomfortable for everyone." While the activity has subsided, and he's now thinking he can go down to the lake again, the hairs are still all over the place, he said.

Many large oak trees around his and neighboring properties are completely defoliated, he said, though he understands the leaves may try to grow back. He has photographs taken June 21 of bare trees contrasting with the bright green leaves on untouched trees, and whole areas of bare trees. Defoliation of large numbers of trees can be seen in Camden around Lake Megunticook and on the islands in the lake, on the lake side of Route 52, and on Route 105 near the lake, he said.

At the June 18 meeting, Gove told the Select Board that "the situation is severe in parts of the town."

"We're surrounded by oak trees on Start Road, and they're completely defoliated. They're eating the evergreens, spruce, apple and birch," she said.

She said her area is in the second year of the infestation. "Last year it was bad at our house. This year, we've literally had thousands and thousands of moths and caterpillars. It's a public health threat." She said she has had the rash, and is covered with it.

"It's affecting health, it's affecting the environment, it will affect tourism and real estate values," she said. "It's not a small thing. My grandkids can't visit. It impacts your quality of life."

Gove wants to see the town come up with an action plan, including recommendations on how to handle the infestations, and thinks it would be helpful to have a committee look into this. She said she is not asking the town to treat private properties.

"It would behoove us to say what we are willing to do, and what resources we are willing to allocate," she said.

Seibel commented that the caterpillars "are wreaking havoc" and cause health and environmental issues that are a growing concern for the community. He reviewed the life cycle of the caterpillar, which is most active from April through June when it exits its winter webs to feed on leaves. The microscopic hairs on the caterpillars can cause a rash and respiratory problems, either through direct contact or by becoming airborne. In late June, caterpillars spin cocoons, which are full of toxic hairs. The moths that emerge from the cocoons are pure white with a brown abdomen, and can also spread caterpillar hairs. The moth's peak activity is from 10 p.m. to midnight, and the Maine Forestry Service recommends turning off outdoor lights in affected areas, Seibel said.

The female moths lay eggs on the bottoms of leaves, which hatch in August, releasing small caterpillars that feed communally. In late August and September, these caterpillars begin building the silk webs often seen at the tops of trees, where they overwinter.

Falciani called the Select Board discussion the beginning of an education campaign, "which we all need, because this is complicated and troublesome." He commented that he could feel the caterpillar hairs in the air.

He said the "whole crescendo of this problem has come to us in the last couple of weeks. We immediately put it on the agenda tonight to begin a discussion."

"This is an open discussion. We've done homework with other towns and our Public Works director. We're trying to figure out now what is the best approach for public-owned properties. And in parallel, for private land, I believe there needs to be education on what is effective and what is not."

Board member Alison McKellar said she and other board members have been educating themselves about the issue. She is concerned about the effects on people, and said board member Jenna Lookner was absent from meeting because of the browntail moth rash.

McKellar wants to know more about the effectiveness of sprays and chemicals used to combat the caterpillars, and the impact of the chemicals on birds, beneficial insects and the watershed. She is concerned about "people getting hysterical about this and polluting our entire watershed with whatever kind of spray they can find at Home Depot," she said.

Board member Taylor Benzie asked if the town had previously assessed the presence of the browntail caterpillar.

Town Manager Audra Caler-Bell said this was the first time the town was discussing the problem. She noted that for 2019, the Forestry Service has said Knox County is at moderate risk for the insect. She said municipalities in Maine "most aggressively addressing this are Falmouth and Yarmouth, which have spraying programs focused on public lands, parks and trees in the right of way." Those towns may not have policies like Camden's on pesticide usage, she said. There are no towns in Maine with programs for private property, according to Caler-Bell.

Tom Schmeelk of the Maine Forest Service said, in a June 20 interview, that the state is contracting with Maine 211, to provide information to people who have concerns and questions about browntail moth caterpillars. Dialing 211 is a resource to get questions answered on the biology, management and human health impacts, he said. There is also a Frequently Asked Questions resource on the Maine Forestry Service website, covering health concerns, reducing toxic hair exposure, management, pesticide options, biology and public policy and economic impacts.

While the browntail moth has inhabited Maine since 1904, the current outbreak began in 2015, denoted by increased levels of defoliation, Schmeelk said. Since 2015. each year has been progressively worse, with this year worse than last year, he said.

The Browntail Moth Exposure Risk Map for 2019 posted on the State Forest Service website is based on road surveys done in the winter to count browntail moth webs in trees and two aerial surveys of the two defoliation events caused by the caterpillars, one in late spring/early summer, and one in late summer/early fall, he explained.

The moderate, orange-shaded area covering all of Knox County denotes that defoliation was mapped and/or continuous stretches of overwintering webs were found in all of the towns, according to the risk map key. There are six levels of exposure, with moderate being the second-highest. Removal of winter webs within reach is considered an effective method in the three lowest levels of exposure, which are normal, alert and trace.

All of Lincoln County's towns but Somerville are listed as high exposure, indicated by red shading. Schmeelk said that just comparing the 2019 map with the 2018 map, a lot of the towns colored orange this year were yellow last year, and a lot of red towns were orange last year.

He said the red shading is based on the survey data, and does not indicate that an entire town is inundated. He said there is evidence of caterpillar populations collapsing, most likely due to the growth during the wet spring weather of a certain fungus that kills them. The evidence is localized, and Maine is not likely to see a statewide collapse, he said.

Browntail caterpillars were beginning to spin a web on June 9, where they will pupate into moths, on a garage near Lake Megunticook in Camden. Webs are filled with toxic hairs and removal requires many precautions, according to the Maine Forestry Service. (Courtesy of: Hamilton Hall)
Driving south on Route 52 in Camden near Lake Megunticook, a photograph taken June 21 shows that all of the trees on the lake side are defoliated, while across the road, trees show normal foliage for the time of year. (Photo by: Hamilton Hall)
Oak trees overlooking Lake Megunticook are stripped of leaves by late June, while other trees are untouched by the browntail moth caterpillar. (Courtesy of: Hamilton Hall)
Trees defoliated by browntail moth caterpillars around Lake Megunticook in late June give the area the appearance of November. (Photo by: Hamilton Hall)
Looking across Lake Megunticook from Route 52 to Stone Point a long stand of defoliated trees now forms the skyline. (Courtesy of: Hamilton Hall)
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Comments (6)
Posted by: Bill Packard | Jun 26, 2019 17:27

You would need a very long pole to get to the tops of the oak trees where they are,

Posted by: Mary Kate Moody | Jun 26, 2019 14:59

Jensen's pharmacy in Rockland has a Browntail Moth specific spray that I used, and it took the rash away overnight and provided immediate relief.  Just need your doctor to call in a prescription.


Chris Moody

Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Jun 26, 2019 14:22

The old common sense way was like the '50s and 60's as Stephen recalled. It worked. So just go out and do it and not wait.

Posted by: Valerie Wass | Jun 26, 2019 13:12


My Grandfather did that as well with the nests in our trees in the backyard.  Do not think that the DEP would go for this anymore.

Posted by: Greg Holt | Jun 25, 2019 20:50

I have the rash and tried everything. Found Benydryl severe itch gel works incredibly well. Thank you Rite Aid.

Posted by: Stephen K Carroll | Jun 25, 2019 19:27

Are we  all just waking up to a problem that has been around for years in this area ?  When I was a child in the 1950's and 1960's I remember my father and others wrapping a long wooden pole in rags then soaking in kerosene.  They would light the pole on fire and burn the nests off the trees.  This was done year after year and always solved the problem.

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