University City

Cankerworms infestation worst in a generation?

Bob Carrigan can’t walk down the driveway of his University City home without bringing his stick to swat at them. Kesha Meads has to take off her shoes at the side door, to prevent bringing them into her house.

Across the Charlotte area, it’s time for the annual cankerworm battle, and many residents say the infestation is worse than normal this year.

In past years, the worms have had a devastating impact on some trees, chewing away the foliage and causing a nuisance with their droppings.

Charlotte city arborist Don McSween says the problem is particularly bad this year in areas outside the central part of Charlotte, where a $1.2 million aerial spraying assault in 2008 was effective against the caterpillars.

“For the most part,” he said, “we’re seeing the problem this year in areas which did not receive much, if any, of the spraying.”

That includes east Charlotte, Mint Hill, Matthews and the Ballantyne area. Other areas in the region are also seeing the worms, including Concord and rural areas of Cabarrus, Union, Lancaster and York counties.

“The cankerworm hatch this year is epic for us,” said Meads, who lives on Lawyers Road, about a half-mile from Albemarle Road in east Charlotte.

Carrigan, who lives on Fairmead Drive off Mallard Creek Road in University City, said he “can’t walk down my driveway without waving a stick in front of me, to cut through the worms.”

McSween said the worms – actually, a form of caterpillars – have arrived early this spring because of the mild weather.

“Usually, we see them in April, normally around Easter,” he said.

The Triangle also is seeing a rare quantity of cankerworms because of the weather, said Steve Frank, entomology professor at N.C. State University. But Frank said serious defoliation is unlikely there because big willow oaks can withstand this level of nibbling.

Cabarrus County extension agent David Goforth said he was on the phone much of Thursday morning, answering phone calls from residents seeking help in dealing with the cankerworms. This is the worst year for the pests in a generation, he said.

Banding prevents worms

Cankerworm eggs were left in trees and flowering bushes last November by females that crawled into the foliage. The eggs hatch every spring, except in trees where bands were placed in autumn. Those bands prevent the females from climbing up the trunk.

But a lot of people forget to install them, McSween said.

“They remember in the spring,” he said.

McSween said the cankerworms will cause trouble for another week or two.

Most people would prefer to see the cankerworms gone now.

“I walk into webs every morning to let my dog out,” said Courtney Branscome, who lives in southern Cabarrus County. “I’ve found a few worms in my house, too.”

Claire Goodman said there were “thousands of those worms, hanging from everywhere” at her home in a neighborhood off Lawyers Road near N.C. 51 in Mint Hill. She said her husband sprayed twice, and she went outdoors with a broom to knock down the webs created by the caterpillars.

“It freaked me out, going outside and getting covered with worms and webs,” she said.

Another Mint Hill resident, Lynn Taylor, said the problem is the worst in the 20 years she has lived there. She finally bought liquid Sevin on Wednesday and sprayed her pin oak trees and flowers. She said the spray killed many of the worms.

Cornelius resident Stephanie Sossamon said she feels like "we can't even play in the yard now, because of the rain of worms and their feces."

Spraying helped problem

City spraying caused the cankerworm count to fall from thousands per tree in some places to only a hundred or so after the spraying.

But even those areas aren’t entirely immune this year.

Megan Patnode lives on Woodland Drive, off Eastway Drive in an area that was sprayed in 2008.

The last couple of years, she only saw a few worms at her house.

This year? “When I put my trash can out this week,” she said, “it was covered in worms when I went to pull it back in from the street.”

And the webs in her trees, she said, look like Halloween decorations.

Josh Shaffer of the (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.