350,000+ acres of trees damaged by gypsy moth caterpillars

Spring weather may determine whether next year will be as bad

AMHERST, Mass. (WWLP) – A scientist at the University of Massachusetts has confirmed what many people in Massachusetts have noticed already: this year’s gypsy moth caterpillar infestation has been the worst since the early 1980s. Entomologist Dr. Joe Elkinton says that 1981 was the last time that we have seen a gypsy moth outbreak this large.

Gypsy moth caterpillars feed on leaves; causing devastating defoliation in some areas of the state. According to a recent aerial survey of the state, more than 350,000 acres of trees were damaged by the caterpillars, who leave behind a mess of half-eaten leaves and droppings. Most of the hardest-hit areas are in south-central and southeastern Massachusetts, though portions of western Massachusetts are also affected.

The first gypsy moth eggs were seen hatching in Brimfield in April, and that town, as well as the surrounding communities of Holland, Wales, Monson, and Palmer all have significant areas of tree damage. An area along the Quabbin Reservoir, including portions of Belchertown, Ware, Pelham, and New Salem were also hit hard, with smaller sections of Ludlow, Hampden, Westfield, Egremont, and Mount Washington also seeing some damage from the caterpillars.

Western Massachusetts is typically not hit as hard as the eastern part of the state during gypsy moth infestations, due to the nature of the trees here. While gypsy moths will eat virtually any kind of leaf- and indeed even the needles of evergreen trees, Dr. Elkinton says they prefer oaks, which dominate the forests in eastern Massachusetts. Western areas of the state tend to have more maple trees, which are not favored by the caterpillars.

The caterpillars which devastated the trees back in June have since turned into adult moths, and trees are recovering, but the moths are now laying their eggs. Does this mean next year will be just as bad? That may depend a lot on the kind of spring we see next year. This spring was particularly dry, which prevented the spread of a fungus that kills gypsy moths- helping them spread. If we see plentiful rain next spring, the fungus can spread, reducing the number of caterpillars we see. If the spring is dry, we may be in for a repeat.

Click here to learn more about methods to control the gypsy moth population.

gypsy moth infestation map
Map shows areas defoliated by gypsy moth caterpillars, according to the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation’s aerial study.

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