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Selected Podpieces

The Dreaded Gypsy Moth

It’s a beautiful afternoon in mid-July. The humidity is low and the sun is shining through the pines to reveal dozens of fluttering winged creatures, gaily skipping about from bush to bush, tree to tree. Summertime on Cape Cod – paradise!

BUT WAIT! Those winged things – they’re not monarchs and admirals and painted ladies; they’re the dreaded gypsy moths. Dozens of male gypsy moths, flittering about my yard in search of the furry white lady gypsy moths, who can’t fly and cling helplessly to a tree, waiting to be impregnated. After which they will deposit a mass of little yellowy eggs which in time will hatch into larvae. And the reason the sun shines so brightly through the pines is that those larvae are the handsome little black and brown caterpillars who have devoured half the pine needles.

Where are the predators? The bluejays, towhees, orioles, chickadees; the deer mice, chipmunks, skunks and raccoons who find gypsy moths to be tasty morsels? I suppose they’re doing their best, eating as much as they can; but apparently they can’t keep up.

We had one large predator in our yard last week. A ten-year-old person was visiting, and in the course of his visit he climbed the crabapple tree. As we lolled on the deck with our beer, we heard him cry out, “YUCK! This tree is full of disgusting pupae! I can’t climb without mashing them!”

We explained about the eruption of the gypsy moths. How the caterpillars devour the leaves and damage many trees beyond recovery, and then turn into pupae which will in turn metamorphose into gypsy moths and start it all over again.

“You want me to kill them?” he said eagerly.

Shivering at his enthusiasm, and although I am averse to killing things unless you plan to eat them, I’ll admit that my answer was Yes.

So for the rest of his visit he rampaged through the yard, stomping on the fuzzy females as they struggled through the grass, whacking the pupae with a heavy stick, mashing the little eggs masses in the furrows of tree bark where their mothers had laid them in the instinctive – and now wrong – knowledge that they would be safe.

Of course, one ten year old boy with three remaining days of vacation hardly made a dent (he had to go to the beach once or twice). But what if we harnessed the blood lust of a passel of boys? Set them free on yard after yard; erect scaffolding from which they can attack the upper reaches of trees. Provide them with sticks and stones and heavy boots for stomping. Reward them with root beer and dollar bills.

Not very likely, I guess. Besides, what’s worse, training your grandson in the ways of Hitler Youth, or sitting through the complete defoliation of your trees? An easy answer, but not one that will save my trees.

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