Tent caterpillars, those dark gray leaf eaters known for draping trees with their delicate web-tents, are enjoying their annual feed in thousands of Washington area trees, local officials report.

Alexandria arborist Gregory Kerman said his phone "hasn't stopped ringing" with calls about the worm-like insect larva.

Kernan and Falls Church arborist Pat Cullen said the caterpillars seldom kill trees. Although they eat leaves, especially those of fruit trees, they are more of an eyesore and nuisance because trees will regenerate their leaves this early in the season, Cullen said.

People wishing to destroy the caterpillars should act soon since they will begin their transformation into moths in the next several weeks. Sharon Nolan, Fairfax County extension agent, said. She suggested that chemical sprays that contain carbaryl (also known as Sevin), diazinon, malathion or acephate, or an organic spray containing the parasite bacillus thuringiemsis can be applied to the tents in the evenings to kill the caterpillars. People can also just squash them, she said.

In at least one location elimination of the caterpillars has become a game. Carolyn Piotrowski of Annandale reported that her family cut out and burned all the webs from their trees this week, but now the caterpillars are climbing the outside walls of their home.

"Neighborhood kids have had just a ball collecting them," she said, to see who can get the most.