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An icky infestation

The caterpillars dripping from oaks are harmless and should be gone soon.

By MIKE BRASSFIELD

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 15, 2001


Sure, they're icky. They're wriggly and squirmy. They're gross.

But the caterpillars dangling from oak trees all over Pinellas County are harmless and should be gone within a couple of weeks, experts say.

That may be cold comfort to humans who have run into one hanging at eyeball level.

"Sure they're harmless -- until you get one in the face," said Karen Gregory, a waitress in downtown St. Petersburg. "I'm a nature lover, but these are just vile."

It remains to be seen whether they'll infest the rest of the Tampa Bay area.

These are not the messy and much-dreaded forest tent caterpillars that invaded in army-sized contingents each March from 1995 to 1998.

These are believed to be nemoiria, members of the inchworm family. They're less messy. They'll soon climb back up their invisible threads, spin their cocoons and turn into tiny moths.

Pinellas County urban horticulturist Opal Schallmo, besieged by homeowners' panicked phone calls, offers some advice:

"Ignore them. Be patient, and in a couple of weeks it'll all be over," she said.

"They're not harmful to the tree. We try to discourage people from getting sprays out and killing every living thing just because it's bothering them. The chemicals will hurt the environment much more than the caterpillars ever would."

The light green caterpillars first appeared about three weeks ago, and they typically hang around for four to six weeks, Schallmo said. They've been seen all over the county, and they're now out in force in downtown St. Petersburg.

They live in laurel oak trees and eat catkans, dying male flowers in the oaks. Laurel oaks in Pinellas have 10 times as many male blooms as last year, possibly because a cold January kept trees dormant for weeks, Schallmo said.

Dr. Wayne Dixon, an entomologist with the state Department of Agriculture, said large-scale infestations of these caterpillars are rare. They need a lot of laurel oaks and the right weather conditions to appear in these numbers.

"They don't sting, they don't irritate the skin," Dixon said. "Except for a momentary nuisance factor, which certainly doesn't compare to that of the forest tent caterpillar, they're about as inoffensive as you can get when you have a whole mess of insects."

Counties bordering Pinellas have yet to see them.

"We have not had any calls about them at all," said Mary Lee Capparelli of Pasco County's Cooperative Extension Service. "That's not to say they won't arrive."

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