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Pests make appearance as seasonal guests

How welcome the caterpillars are is another matter. The problem should subside this month.

[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
A caterpillar climbs on a branch near Cherry Street in Brooksville on Thursday.

By JOY DAVIS-PLATT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 14, 2002

The wooden eaves of Rebecca Ashley's Ridge Manor home resemble the side of an old ship crusted with barnacles. From a distance, the roof appears to move in the morning sunlight.

Upon closer inspection, Ashley's home and yard suffer the effects of something many Hernando County residents have fought over the past few weeks: caterpillars.

"I thought it was kids that eat you out of house and home, but I guess caterpillars can, too," said Ashley, whose oak trees have borne the brunt of the caterpillar infestation in her yard, new leaves chewed away practically as they sprout.

County officials say Ashley isn't alone.

For weeks, the Hernando County Cooperative Extension Service in Brooksville has fielded calls from concerned residents about the furry pests.

"Despite what people think, this is nothing that we haven't seen or heard before," said Jim Moll, an urban horticulture agent.

"There seem to be a lot of them this year, but this is part of the life cycle of caterpillars living in Florida."

The caterpillars, which are about an inch long, spend their winter as eggs, Moll said. They hatch in early to mid March and make cocoons. After pupating for a couple of weeks, they emerge in April as adult Tussock moths.

"The cocoons remain awhile," said Moll. "For most people, that's the most frustrating part."

The yellow, fuzzy-looking caterpillars on Ashley's property have focused much of their efforts on smaller trees and shrubs, apparently fond of the younger leaves.

"The sprays from the lawn center don't do anything but make them work up an appetite," she said, shaking her head. "I'm just going to wait it out."

At this point, that is the best course of action, Moll said.

"The good news is that this is almost over," he said. "There's not much point in doing anything now because it's too late in the life cycle and the real damage was done earlier."

As for why Hernando's caterpillar population skyrocketed this year, Moll said there may not be any one cause.

"It's not uncommon to have cycles -- years where the population is higher or lower than usual. There's probably no one specific reason."

Ashley said she will just be happy to have her yard back to normal.

"I'm always pretty glad when visitors leave. This won't be an exception," she said.

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