Raj N. Waghray, an insect specialist, pointed to a fuzzy, brownish, teardrop-shaped clump that looked just like dozens that had been scraped from the trunks of Fairfax County trees this summer. It was barely 1 1/2 inches long, but its implications were enormous.
For inside that inconspicuous blob were perhaps 1,000 tiny eggs of the gypsy moth, a creature whose voracious appetite for tree leaves is responsible for the record defoliation of about 13.1 million acres in the Northeast last year.
To Waghray, the message was clear: The gypsy moth has come to the Washington area to stay.
"It's going to stay around here for a long time, I'm afraid," said Waghray, a Virginia state entomologist who has followed the gypsy moth's progress in the Washington area this summer. "It's much more widespread now."
Maryland, parts of Northern Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia mark the leading edge of the unrelenting southward spread of the leaf-eating beasts, whose chewing already has defoliated millions of acres and ruined hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of trees throughout the Northeast.
Unfortunately, no one knows how to eradicate the gypsy moths, which are destructive only during their caterpillar stage. Pest control specialists say their only hope is to slow the moths' advance and limit the damage.
In the Washington area, little defoliation has been found thus far and no tree has been reported to have died because of the caterpillars' chewing. Yet many officials predict that defoliation will increase here in the next years and that some trees, particularly oaks and other species favored by the moths, eventually may be killed.
Entomologists say a sturdy tree may withstand several defoliations before it perishes, though weaker trees may not last as long.
In Fairfax County, which recently launched one of Northern Virginia's most aggressive counterattacks against the moths, Waghray and others have gathered information suggesting that the bug has dug in for a future onslaught.
Last year, county examiners spotted five infested areas near Great Falls, Annandale, McLean and Springfield. Pest control officials assailed three of the biggest swarms with sprays last May, wiping out many of the critters.
But since then, officials say, moth sightings have greatly increased. Government inspections already have confirmed 302 new reports of gypsy moth infestation. A map in Waghray's office shows these sites scattered throughout Fairfax County. Officials are now weighing tactics for a spring counter-assault, Waghray said.
Pest authorities say that significant signs of gypsy moth encroachment have turned up in several Northern Virginia counties, as well as in Maryland and the District.
"We probably have a low level infestation all the way [from Northern Virginia] to the James River," said Robert E. Bailey, a plant pest control official in the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Virginia authorities are gearing up for a broader antimoth drive by surveying forests and other wooded areas for signs of the bugs and imposing a quarantine on infested sites to try to stem the moths' spread. The quarantine, enforced since September, requires government certification that Christmas trees, firewood, timber, pulpwood and other products are free from gypsy moths before they may be shipped through the state for sale. As the Yule season nears, Christmas tree lots are slated for special scrutiny.
In Maryland, the moths' southward spread is stirring increasing concern in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. The invading insects previously swept through areas north of the Washington suburbs, attacking mainly in Cecil, Harford, Carroll, Frederick, Washington and Baltimore counties, where 9,120 acres of trees were defoliated this year.
Bob Tichenor, who heads Maryland's antimoth drive, said recent evidence points to widespread incursions by relatively small numbers of moths so far throughout Montgomery and all but southern Prince George's. He hopes to soon pinpoint several "isolated hot spots" of heavier infestation in the two counties, Tichenor said. Maryland carried out its first massive aerial assault earlier this year, spraying 48,000 acres. The targets included one heavily infested, 70-acre neighborhood in Bethesda, Wood Haven, which was doused in April.
In the District of Columbia, federal and city officials are gauging the moths' inroads with growing dismay. "There was an increase in the number of male moths found," said Bradley Sweet, a city horticulturist. In addition, he noted that egg masses have been discovered in Rock Creek Park and at the District's northwestern outskirts. Moreover, one oak tree, growing beside 48th Street NW between Sedgwick and Tilden streets, showed signs of defoliation from the caterpillars' munching.
Federal officials plan a survey of U.S. park land in the District in December to search for moths and eggs. "It's a very real city problem," said William Anderson, chief scientist for the National Park Service's national capital region. "There isn't an awful lot we can do."
Anderson noted that scraping off egg masses often proves ineffective, and he cautioned that spraying may harm not only the leaf-eating moths, but beneficial animals as well.
"It's going to be very tough," he said.