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Answer Man: Attack of the Killer Moths

By John Kelly
Monday, April 4, 2005; Page C11

Some years ago, we were all warned about the invasion of the dreaded gypsy moth, the scourge of the hardwood forest. We were doomed unless we put wide layers of tape around the trunks of all of our trees at the right time of year to stop the larvae from climbing into the trees, where they would consume all of the leaves and kill the tree. And so we wrapped our tree trunks in inverted duct tape -- no easy task -- to catch the larvae. I never caught one; others may have.

I see few layers of tape these days -- and lots of trees. And I can't help but wonder: What happened to the gypsy moth menace?

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Pete Dinwoodie, Columbia

It is seldom that we Americans get to blame Napoleon Bonaparte for anything. But Answer Man is going to boldly lay the blame for the gypsy moth scourge squarely at the feet of the diminutive Frenchman with the original Napoleon complex.

For if Napoleon had not become emperor of France, it is unlikely that his nephew Louis Napoleon would have conspired to later overthrow the Republic and establish himself as emperor.

And if Louis Napoleon had not come to power, it is unlikely that a Frenchman named Etienne Leopold Trouvelot would have moved to the United States. And if Trouvelot hadn't moved to the United States. . . . Well, let me explain:

Trouvelot was a politically active 24-year-old artist who found himself on the outs when Napoleon III claimed the throne. So in 1855, he fled to America -- 27 Myrtle St. in the Boston suburb of Medford, Mass., to be exact -- and there indulged his hobby of raising silkworms.

He decided that the problem with American silkworms was that they didn't put out enough silk. So while on a trip to Europe, he picked up some eggs from Lymantria dispar, the gypsy moth.

The gypsy moth already had a bit of a bad reputation, but Trouvelot didn't care. He raised them on trees in his back yard, covered by nets, apparently in the hopes of cross-breeding them with American silkworms. But a gust of wind blew some of the eggs out into the neighborhood at large. Trouvelot realized the potential for disaster and notified area entomologists; they ignored his warnings.

By 1882, the gypsy moth had established itself so well on Myrtle Street that residents couldn't go outside in the spring and summer, so numerous were the furry caterpillars. The trees were doomed.

Trouvelot's dark legacy spread farther and farther from Medford. The caterpillars were capable of stripping entire forests of their leaves. A single large caterpillar can eat a square foot of leaf surface in 24 hours.

Maryland's first gypsy moth egg mass was discovered in 1971, said Bob Tichenor, an entomologist with the state's Department of Agriculture. The pest infestations wax and wane in their severity. We're in the trough of the five- to seven-year cycle.

"We don't turn our backs on it," said Bob. "We do surveys all over the state because it comes back so quickly. There are areas where the next thing you know, you'd have defoliation if you weren't keeping track of it."

Spraying with a pesticide is one option, but the thing that has really helped in the fight is an Asian fungus called Entomophaga maimaiga, which turns the caterpillars into goop.

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