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Spongy moth caterpillars could put Connecticut trees in danger

Repeated attacks from the spongy moth larvae can weaken a tree's ability to ward off secondary stressors.
Credit: FOX61
Spongy moth caterpillar (formerly 'gypsy moth' caterpillar)

CONNECTICUT, USA — Spongy moth caterpillars are beginning to hatch, and a high infestation of the invasive bug is expected this year, and it could be even more severe if we see dry weather in Connecticut this spring.

Spongy moths were formerly named 'gypsy moths', but the Entomological Society of America revised the name this year. While the name may be new, the destruction of trees is well-known.  As they grow, the caterpillars will feed on tree leaves, preferring oaks, or other hardwood trees like hemlock and white pine. 

Repeated attacks from spongy moths can weaken a tree’s natural ability to ward off secondary stressors such as drought or other insects and disease

But a soil-borne fungus called Entomophaga maimaiga is lethal to only spongy moth caterpillars and keeps their populations in check. The fungus is activated by wet spring conditions, so a dry season could mean more caterpillars, keeping trees from being able to regrow leaves, or "refoliate".

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Officials are particularly worried about trees in northern Litchfield County, saying that last year they found large amounts of egg masses there, “which leads us to believe there will be a continued hatch and extensive caterpillar activity in 2022,” said Dr. Victoria Smith, Deputy State Entomologist. Residents, arborists, and foresters have also reported large amounts of spongy moth egg masses.

“2021 was the first year of widespread defoliation in northwest Connecticut and most healthy trees refoliated in part due to sufficient summer rains. The energy required to refoliate places significant stress on trees increasing the risk of tree mortality in 2022,” said DEEP Director of Forestry Chris Martin.

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Jareliz Diaz is a digital content producer at FOX61 News. She can be reached at jdiaz@fox61.com

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