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Tiny green worms emerging on trees – and plopping into people’s hair

Cankerworms, it is their time of year

Their leaf munching weakens trees making them more vulnerable to age, drought, other insects and disease.
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Their leaf munching weakens trees making them more vulnerable to age, drought, other insects and disease.

Cankerworms are slinking once again on Charlotte’s trees, feasting on leaves and plopping into the hair of unsuspecting walkers and joggers.

Some Dilworth residents reported plucking the little green caterpillars off their heads and clothes this week in what has become perhaps the grossest harbinger of spring in some Charlotte neighborhoods.

Cankerworms typically emerge this time of the year from eggs laid by wingless moths in December.

Their population has grown for 30 years in the Queen City, although city arborist Tim Porter said his staff has observed a smaller impact this year.

“I believe the unusual weather Charlotte experienced this past winter probably contributed to the smaller impact, but not certain as to exactly how the weather affected this,” Porter told the Observer in an email on Wednesday.

Cankerworm numbers, per the city’s monitoring program, are still high or have increased in some areas, Porter said. “Numbers were highest in the west and northeast areas of Charlotte,” he said. “Numbers generally were lower in areas where the city has conducted past aerial sprays targeting cankerworms.”

Charlotte conducted aerial sprays in 1992, 1998 and 2008, but Porter has said that banding your trees in the fall can greatly reduce the nuisance and environmental impact of the worms when they emerge each spring.

Charlotte started a banding program on street trees in 1990, while asking homeowners and businesses to help by banding their trees, too.

Banding in late November produces the best results, the city says, but homeowners should wait until most leaves have fallen so they don’t get stuck to the tree bands. The city offers tree banding grants to neighborhood and community groups.

Homeowners place a band of paper-like material around their trees and add a coat of sticky material to prevent the moths from crawling up the trees to lay their eggs.

Cankerworms don’t in most cases kill trees, but repeated defoliation makes them more vulnerable to age, drought, other insects and disease.

The worms infest trees from Georgia to Nova Scotia and west to Texas, and Charlotte has seen severe infestations over the decades.

Their growing population has long stumped entomologists, but Charlotte’s large number of old willow oaks could be partly to blame, city officials said.

Joe Marusak: 704-358-5067, @jmarusak

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