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Eating away the Adirondacks: Gypsy moths bring early fall to parts of the region

Eating away the Adirondacks: Gypsy moths bring early fall to parts of the region

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Queensbury resident Jeff Tabor posted a photo on his Facebook page of a gypsy moth caterpillar on a leaf in the Van Dusen Preserve off West Mountain Road with a caption that the “woods in Queensbury are looking a hell of a lot brighter this spring!”

Some readers may have thought he was being sarcastic about the proliferation of the moths this year, but a follow-up phone call revealed he was serious.

The woods are brighter, because the leaf cover in some areas has been decimated.

“And the trails look like somebody mulched it,” he said of the half-eaten fallen leaves.

He said a friend from South Glens Falls had driven north of Warrensburg recently and reported the woods were “almost bare” in spots.

A recent round of golf at Top of the World resort in Lake George revealed that some greens were spotted with hundreds of the caterpillars, crawling around. And while walking through wooded areas, you could hear their droppings falling from the trees like rain.

“The volume we’re seeing I’ve never seen before,” said the course’s gardener, Bryan O’Connor. “Hole number four is literally brown every morning and I’m working from six in the morning to 8:30 at night just doing the greens. There are literally thousands and thousands of them.”

Queensbury Recreation Department officials said they’re struggling with the infestation, too.

“We’ve had a mess at Gurney Lane,” Assistant Director Jennifer Baertschi-France said on Wednesday. “It looks like fall.”

She said the recreation director, Steve Lovering, came back covered in caterpillars after surveying trails recently.

“They were just dropping out of the trees on me and I would try to brush them off and they’d just disintegrate,” he said.

Lovering said Gurney Lane was hardest-hit, with Rush Pond trails a close second. At Gurney Lane they are everywhere.

“They’re not just in the trees, they’re on picnic tables and the ground and in the pool,” he said, adding that the pool opens Thursday. “We had to use a pressure washer in the pool to get them off before we filled it up.”

A person who answered the phone at the state Department of Environmental Conservation office in Warrensburg said she is being inundated with calls about the infestation. People have talked about the feces dropping from the trees as “disgusting.”

DEC Forester Rob Cole went live on Facebook recently to answer questions and detail what he called a cyclical outbreak.

While the gypsy moth has been around in the United States since the mid-1800s, after being brought here to produce silk, we occasionally see outbreaks like this year where some areas suffer mass defoliation.

“Every 10 or 15 years, the population builds and we have an outbreak,” Cole said.

The caterpillars first dine on leafy trees, preferably oaks, he said. But they will also eat leaves on maple, locust, willow and apple trees before settling for needle trees like pine and spruce, he said.

In New York, areas in the Finger Lakes and in Clinton, Warren and Saratoga counties have been particularly hard hit, he said.

Within a month or so, however, healthy trees now defoliated will regrow leaves, and barren sections of forest will again appear healthy, he said.

“The leaf damage is just for now,” he said.

Trees that were already not very healthy, however, may not rebound, he said.

As for what homeowners can do to ward them off, Cole said sticky bands around trees can work, as can a turned-over burlap that catches them as they try to climb. Once caught, the caterpillars can be dumped into “hot soapy water” to kill them.

Spraying the caterpillars with hot soapy water is not effective, he said.

“That’s not likely to do anything,” he said.

Aerial spraying can also be effective, but should be done earlier in the spring when the defoliation is just beginning, he said.

Warren County officials have set up a website where residents can report outbreaks, so the county can track hard-hit areas, said county spokesman Don Lehman. He said hundreds of residents have already used the site, and he added that the county has been fielding a lot of calls about the caterpillars.

As for the future, Cole and Warren County Soil and Water Conservation District Manager Jim Lieberum both said it could depend on how wet it is in coming spring seasons.

Naturally occurring bacteria, fungi and viruses can kill off the gypsy moth and are more prevalent in wet springs, they said.

“If we have a dry year, then it will not work as well and we will likely have more damage than we would want. If the recent rains activate the bacterium, then hopefully it will begin the process of killing off the caterpillars,” Lieberum said in a release.

Residents can also buy the bacterium, bacillus thuringiensis, known as BT, but that is most effective early in the spring.

The 61-year-old Tabor, an avid hiker, recalled hiking up Prospect Mountain in Lake George decades ago, while wearing his favorite white hiking shirt, and finding it got covered in goo from the caterpillars all over the trees. His wife wanted him to toss the shirt it was so nasty, he said.

“People say they’ve never seen it this bad, but people quickly forget,” he said.

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