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The March of the Caterpillar

pine processionary caterpillar
21 Mar

Ever heard of the Pine Processionary Caterpillar? Those of you with holiday homes in southern France, Italy or Spain will no doubt be all too aware of these critters that blight a country dog walk at this time of year. If you’ve never heard of it read on…

In late August the Pine Processionary Moth lays her eggs in the Pine trees that will provide the food for the hatching caterpillars. About a month later they hatch and grow rapidly. They live in the forests of Spain, Italy, France, North Africa and the Mediterranean area. The caterpillar goes through five stages of development, moulting its skin at the end of each stage and constructing new nests ever higher up the tree. Several hundred caterpillars inhabit each nest and as there are usually numerous ones in a tree, the tree often suffers irreparable damage. The nests are white cone like structures that normally face south and inside the inhabitants can withstand winter temperatures as low as -12 Celsius.

The following Spring, anytime from February to May, the caterpillars leave the tree and form long nose to tail processions, looking for a suitable place in the soil to pupate. They bury themselves in the soil and stay there until they emerge as an adult moth. Once they emerge they mate, lay their eggs in a nearby pine tree and die. The period of pupation can last months or years, depending on how long it takes for the right conditions to allow their transformation to moth. The caterpillar has an orange brown back with grey bands and grey protrusions on each body segment. Each protrusion has a bunch of hairs growing that cause all the problems for cats, dogs and some humans. The hairs contain an allergenic protein which can cause reactions from mild itching to temporary blindness and anaphylactic shock. Reactions in dogs range from swelling, dribbling tongue to vomiting or even death.

How do I get rid of these caterpillars?

Getting rid of the processionary caterpillar is a difficult job. The best time to attack them is when they are most vunerable, at the end of the summer months. Try to cut the nests down wearing gloves and throw them on a bonfire. Equally, chemicals such as Cypermethrin can be sprayed onto the nests at this time. Pheromone traps are available locally to attach around the tree, catch and eliminate the caterpillars. A new treatment pioneered in Italy called endotherapy (tree trunk injection) is used to treat this and other parasitic problems in areas where trees are in highly populated areas and spraying is unadvisable, or where trees are particularly high or the pest as here is difficult to eliminate. This is also a treatment for the Oak Processionary Caterpillar.

If you are reading this thinking that you will never be victim to such horrors think again. The Oak Processionary Caterpillar is a problem that is much closer to home as these pests are invading new areas of Britain after being most prevalant in the south. The hairs of this caterpillar cause the same reactions as their european counterparts with skin rashes, runny eyes, vomiting, dizziness and fever being noted. The creatures inhabit oak trees where they strip the leaves before turning into moths. It is thought they were brought into London in 2006 on a batch of oak trees imported from Holland.

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