DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — You might be itching to pick up that fluffy-looking grayish-white caterpillar but beware, you could be itching if you do.
The hairs of the Hickory Tussock caterpillar, which has black tufts on its back and black spikes, can cause an allergic reaction or rash for some people who make contact with the insect. The caterpillars are being seen in abundance pretty much throughout the state, but more so in the northern part of the state, according to Charlene Donahue, forest entomologist with the Department of Conservation.
“There’s more of them than normal,” which was anticipated because of the high numbers of the Hickory Tussock moths observed earlier this year, Donahue said Tuesday. Donahue said her department conducts moth catches across the state and the number of Hickory Tussock moths caught was quite high.
Residents, too, have found the insect more abundant based on the number of reports Donahue’s office has received inquiring about the caterpillar. “They are native to Maine and they do show up in numbers every now and then and this is one of those years,” Donahue said.
Clay Kirby, University of Maine Cooperative Extension entomologist, also said Tuesday that he has received more samples of the caterpillar forwarded to his laboratory, more digital photos of the insect and more phone calls, all asking for identification.
Donahue advised people to leave the caterpillar alone because of the possibility of a reaction. They also should be cautious when cleaning up leaf litter on the ground since any hairs left behind by the caterpillar also could cause problems with some people, she added. She recommended that people wear gloves when cleaning up yards.
Some people aren’t bothered by the caterpillar but others could have a reaction that ranges from a mild to fairly severe rash, according to Donahue.
“It’s like poison ivy,” she said.
Parents also should keep an eye on their toddlers when outdoors, Kirby recommended. “It’s a cool thing to look at but you might not want to play with them,” he said.
The Hickory Tussock has been around in Maine for some time, but the numbers have been growing in the last couple of years, Kirby noted. There are a number of factors that keep insect populations down to a more normal level and those factors include weather influences, parasites, predators, diseases and human effects, he said. Because the numbers have increased, it’s possible that any combination of one or more of those factors is not present in the same way to keep the numbers down, according to Kirby. He said some mortality factor could kick in between now and next summer to reduce the population.
The caterpillar is so-named because it feeds on hickory trees in farther south, Donahue said. In Maine, the Hickory Tussocks feed mostly on beech and oak trees but they’re rarely in high enough numbers to do major damage, she noted.
The caterpillar starts to wander this time of year to look for a place to make its cocoon, Donahue explained. The moths will not make their appearance until next July.