New York State IPM Program

February 6, 2019
by Debra E. Marvin
Comments Off on Not Too Early to Start Planning for Pollinator Habitat

Not Too Early to Start Planning for Pollinator Habitat

Some of our beneficial insect habitat plots looked really beautiful this fall! Others are still works in progress.

Today’s post is from our Biocontrol Specialist, Amara Dunn

Have seed and plant catalogs started arriving in your mailbox, yet? This is the time of year I start thinking wistfully about the arrival of spring. If your spring daydreams include planting habitat for pollinators and other beneficial insects, keep reading for the latest on NYS IPM’s beneficial insect habitat establishment project!

Back in October I described the purpose and design of this project. So what have we learned after the first year? First, here’s a reminder of the different treatments we were comparing. Each treatment involved either direct seeding or transplanting habitat plants, in the spring or the fall, utilizing a different method for weed control.

Treatment Fall 2017 Spring 2018 Summer 2018 Fall 2018
A Herbicide Herbicide, transplant  Weed 2x Replace dead plants
B Herbicide Till, transplant, mulch Weed 2x Replace dead plants
C Herbicide Till, direct seed Mow 3x Mow 1x
D Herbicide Till, plant buckwheat Mow 1x, till, plant buckwheat Mow 1x, transplant
E – control Herbicide Herbicide Mow 3x Mow 1x
F Herbicide Till, lay plastic Continue solarization Remove plastic, direct seed
G Herbicide Herbicide/till Herbicide 2x, till 1x Till 1x, direct seed

And here’s how much time and money we spent on each method during our first year. Each treatment was applied to a total area of 460 ft2 (0.01 A).

Treatment Supply costs

Time

(person hrs)

A – Spring transplant $417.12 13.2
B – Spring transplant and mulch $539.29 20.4
C – Spring seeding $17.75 4.4
D – Buckwheat & fall seeding $390.55 10.3
E – Control $2.32 2.6
F – Solarize & fall seeding $148.02 10.2
G – Herbicide/tillage & fall seeding $22.04 6.3

What did we get for the time and money we invested? Well, the only two treatments that looked anything like habitat for beneficial insects by October were the ones we transplanted in the spring (A and B). And of the two, treatment B looked a lot better because of the mulch we spread around the plants after transplanting to help suppress weeds. Even so, we still hand weeded this treatment (and treatment A) twice during the year. But we got much better weed control in treatment B.

Four and a half months after transplanting, the beneficial habitat plants in treatments A (left) and B (right) were mostly growing well. But there was a big difference in weed control, in spite of similar amounts of time spent weeding each treatment

Direct-seeding in the spring resulted in a few blackeyed Susans by October (and a few partridge peas slightly earlier in the year), but did not look very impressive and had a lot of weeds.

After direct-seeding in the spring and mowing four times during the summer and fall, there were a few blackeyed Susans blooming in treatment C plots.

Of the three methods we used to manage weeds during the season, alternating herbicide applications and tillage resulted in the cleanest-looking plot by October.

A few weeds were present a week after the last time the herbicide/tillage treatment (G) was rototilled. We broadcast, raked, and pressed beneficial habitat seed into these plots.

Solarizing the soil was low-maintenance once the plastic was laid in the spring. We did learn that solarization is not a good strategy if you’re trying to control purselane. It grew just fine under our clear plastic, while most other weeds didn’t. In some places, it probably reduced the efficacy of solarization because it pushed the plastic away from the soil and allowed other weeds to germinate and grow.

In some solarized plots, purslane grew happily under the plastic. Purslane was not a common weed anywhere else in the field during the season.

 

The two crops of buckwheat we grew in treatment D not only suppressed weeds, but also attracted lots of pollinators and natural enemies to its blossoms before we mowed the crop down to keep it from going to seed.

The buckwheat established quickly and crowded out many weeds. We mowed the first crop in July and re-planted. We had to mow the second crop about 3 weeks before we transplanted (not ideal).

In summary, if one of your 2019 resolutions is to plant habitat for beneficial insects, I have two pieces of advice:

  1. Spend 2019 controlling weeds. Even where we transplanted, weed pressure was a challenge, and investing in weed control before you plant is worth it!
  2. If you have sufficient funds and need or want to establish habitat quickly, transplants are the way to go. Mulch will help you with your battle against weeds.

In 2019, we’re planning to keep monitoring these plots. Check back to see how the fall-planted and direct-seeded treatments look in their second year. Most of these methods are expected to take several years to reach their full potential. We will also start counting the insects (and insect-like creatures, like spiders) we find in these plots. During 2018, we already started seeing some beneficial insects showing up in these plots, so I’m looking forward to counting them once spring finally gets here!

Here are just a few of the beneficial insects we spotted in these plots during 2018. Soldier beetles, many  hover flies, and lacewing larvae are all natural enemies of pests. We also saw lots of lady beetles and several other types of bees.

Thanks to Betsy Lamb and Brian Eshenaur who are working on this project with me, and to Bryan Brown for doing a weed assessment for us. You can read more about this project and see more pictures from 2018 at Biocontrol Bytes. Subscribe to make sure you don’t miss future updates!

For more about biocontrol and Amara’s work, follow her blog, Biocontrol Bytes, and the NYSIPM Facebook page where we try to keep up with all of her activities around the state!

December 26, 2018
by Joellen Lampman
Comments Off on 2018’s Best of NYS IPM

2018’s Best of NYS IPM

“None of us is as smart as all of us.” –Ken Blanchard

2018 has been quite the year and we have been busy blogging, tweeting, videoing, and Facebooking about it. Here’s a recap of some of our more popular 2018 offerings:

ThinkIPM – our catchall blog and a great way to keep a pulse on what’s happening in New York State IPM.

Our most popular blog post was actually a guest blog by Paul Hetzler, CCE St. Lawrence County, Move Over, Medusa: Pretty? Poisonous! in the Caterpillar Clan. We’re big fans of his writing and this post on a venomous caterpillar caught a lot of your attention as well. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 

Are you safe now?

Ticks in February?

Ticks in the cold was also a popular topic. And relevant to now! Check out these two blog posts, Ticks don’t care what month it is and Ticks and the freezing weather. Hopefully they both convince you to keep up your daily tick checks.

While visiting our blog, you have also been checking out older posts. Our second most popular post viewed in 2018 was a 2014 post, Identifying Your Pest – with Poop?. There are a lot of budding scatologists out there.

Other IPM Blogs – Besides ThinkIPM, we have more dedicated blogs, and you don’t need to be a specialist to subscribe to them. Here are some of the more popular posts:

The Spotted Wing Drosophila blog has an obvious focus, but the post Spotted lanternfly found in two counties in NY captured the most views.

 

Biocontrol Bytes was begun at the end of 2018 and many of you have been enjoying the updates on the Creating habitat for beneficial insects project.

 

We saw a number of news reports about bed bugs in schools, so we wrote Bed bugs in schools aren’t going away in The ABCs of School and Childcare Pest Management blog. And you read it. We just wish the news reporters and commenters did too.

 

The 2017 NEWA Survey: IPM impact includes such gems as “93% agreed or strongly agreed that NEWA pest forecast information enhances IPM decision-making for their crops”.

 

Gypsy moths on Christmas trees? Check out the Tree Integrated Pest Management blog and see how it’s now a thing in the Gypsy Moth Caterpillars -Scout for them now post.

 

Facebook

When it comes to Facebook, video rules. Our most popular Facebook post was our claymation video, Life Cycle of the Blacklegged Tick (and Lyme Disease Prevention!). And, by the way, this claymation was part of a large Don’t Get Ticked NY campaign launched in 2018!

Our new Spotted Lanternfly video, Have YOU Spotted Lanternfly Egg Masses was just posted, but it has already reached the number two spot. This invasive insect is getting a lot of attention and we need your help to keep track of it in New York.

 

Twitter

We’re not surprised that our most popular Tweet of 2018 was about spotted lanternfly. Follow us on Twitter to keep up with the latest information.

 

 

 

Annual Report

This might be cheating, because it was just released and we have no data to show its popularity, but our 2017-2018 annual report is a 2019 calendar and everyone we have shown it to has been pretty excited.

Here’s a picture of the spotted lanternfly you have been hearing about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, as we raise our glasses to 2018 and look forward to 2019, include keeping up with NYS IPM Program amongst your resolutions.

Happy New Year!

November 14, 2018
by Debra E. Marvin
Comments Off on Educator Bee-Guiles Audiences… Meet Excellence in IPM Award Winner Jen Lerner

Educator Bee-Guiles Audiences… Meet Excellence in IPM Award Winner Jen Lerner

Educator bee-guiles audiences with enthusiasm and results, earns Excellence in IPM award

A 13 year veteran of Putnam County, Lerner’s work as an invasive species educator, native plant and pollinator advocate, and turfgrass researcher has demonstrated her commitment, enthusiasm and mastery of IPM tools and tactics. Promoting IPM through education, demonstrations, and inclusive programs, Lerner has empowered her community with effective, science-based techniques.

“Jennifer Lerner’s willingness and enthusiasm for extending information to her region is legendary,” says Elizabeth Lamb, IPM Ornamentals coordinator. “She’s a gem.”

Jennifer Lerner

As a coordinator and collaborator for the Hudson Valley portion of the multi-year, multi-state project on keeping weeds out of sports fields on a budget, Lerner and her Turfgrass Team volunteers used “repetitive seeding” on high-use sports areas. The result? Safe playing surfaces that filled back in game after game. Why does it matter? Because we’d rather use seed than herbicides—and weeds make for slick footing and, too often, expensive falls.

Download Putnam County’s MAKE YOUR YARD A BEE FRIENDLY YARD

Lerner also made Putnam County a leader in lily leaf beetle research. Notorious for decimating lilies, this pest is a pain for nurseries and householders alike. Enter an IPM management option: the release of a parasitoid wasp that feeds on the beetle larvae. Lerner secured a plot of land for the project, trained volunteers on the life cycle and proper handling of the wasps, and organized their successful release. Lerner’s most crucial contribution? Her outreach and clear communication skills, says project manager Brian Eshenaur.

A stalwart champion of bees and the native plants they depend on, Lerner so inspired the students from her advanced pollinators classes that they took what they learned and passed it on to over 530 community members at farmer’s markets and county fairs. And she created a special section—“Beauty and the Bees”—at the Master Gardeners’ annual plant sale. This section, now three years old, dwarfs the inventory of non-natives plants offered for sale.

There’s more, of course. Lerner also managed a demonstration pollinator garden located beside the Putnam County Department of Motor Vehicles, which attracts hundreds of patrons day in and out.

“Jen has been an important influence in promoting native plants,” says Master Gardener Janis Butler. “Whether it’s through engaging lectures, newsletter articles or in-person demonstrations, she illustrates the importance of planting natives wherever possible.”

Congratulations Jen!

 

Lerner received her award on November 14 at Cornell Cooperative Extension’s yearly in-service training in Ithaca, NY.

Press Release written by NYS IPM Science Writer Mary Woodsen

Learn more about Integrated Pest Management at nysipm.cornell.edu.

October 9, 2018
by Debra E. Marvin
Comments Off on Pollinator Habitat

Pollinator Habitat

Today, Biocontrol Specialist Amara Dunn addresses a common question.

So you want to grow habitat for pollinators…what’s the best method?

The short answer is that there probably isn’t a single best method. But there may be a best method for you. I know it’s not a very satisfying answer, but let me explain.

Remember that an area that provides food and shelter for pollinators (and, incidentally, natural enemies of pests, too!) contains a mix of plant species that bloom throughout the growing season and variation in plant shapes, sizes, and types. Leaving debris from last year’s growth is also helpful. While there are many good reasons to use native plants, non-native plants are ok too, as long as they aren’t invasive. There are plenty of resources out there for choosing plant species for pollinators, like this list of regionally-appropriate plants, and this database that is searchable by zip code. Other databases are searchable by specific plant characteristics.

Once you’ve selected the species you want to use in your pollinator habitat area, you have two main tasks: managing weeds, and establishing the plants. And here’s where the options can start to feel daunting. How will you manage weeds – hand pulling, herbicides, tillage, a cover crop, mulch? This is a critical step in creating habitat for pollinators, and one that is too-often overlooked. Experts recommend that you plan to spend at least one full growing season focused only on this task.

The weed management strategy you choose may also depend on how you would like to establish the plants you have chosen. The two main options are planting seeds directly into the ground, or transplanting small seedlings (or “plugs”). But should you do this in the spring or the fall? In the Northeast United States, experts recommend sowing seeds in the fall. Fall is also a good time to transplant perennials. And it has the advantage of allowing you to spend the entire growing season controlling weeds. But depending on your project timeline, it may not feel like the best option for you.

To help you make informed decisions about the best way to establish habitat for pollinators, I am working with Dr. Betsy Lamb and Brian Eshenaur to measure the costs, labor, and effectiveness of different methods for establishing pollinator habitat. The work is being done in demonstration plots located at Cornell AgriTech at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, NY. We are comparing six different methods, summarized below.

As you can see, we’ve included a mixture of weed management techniques (cover crop, mulch, mowing, herbicide and tillage, soil solarization) and different plant establishment techniques (seeds vs. plants, spring vs. fall timing). And we’re keeping track of the time and money spent on each method.

You can read more about the details of the methods we’re using and see pictures of our spring planting and seeding on my blog, Biocontrol Bytes. Over the next month or so, we will do our fall seeding. Stay tuned as we finish up the season and calculate inputs of time and money and analyze data collected by NYS IPM’s Bryan Brown on weed management success.

Amara Dunn is the Biocontrol Specialist for the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program, Cornell University, New York State Agricultural Experiment Station, 630 W. North Street, Geneva, NY 14456.  Follow her blog, BIOCONTROL BYTE

March 23, 2018
by Joellen Lampman
Comments Off on Right Plant, Right Place – For Pollinators

Right Plant, Right Place – For Pollinators

“He that plants trees loves others besides himself.” – Thomas Fuller

Have you considered planting a tree for pollinators? Eastern redbud is a good early flowering choice currently on sale at many Soil & Water Conservation District tree and shrub sales. Photo Credit: Karen flickr

Pollinators have been big news over the past few years. Whether you are a farmer, golf course superintendent, landscaper, gardener, or just a random person walking down the street, it is likely that you have heard the importance of protecting pollinators and doing your part to increase their habitat. We dedicated an annual conference to the subject back in 2015 and have penned numerous blog posts that cover pollinator topics.

Often the call to create habitat comes in the form of planting pollinator attractive flowers, whether they be plants for your formal garden bed or a swath of wildflower meadow along the edge of your property. For your garden, resources abound on choosing great plants. On the Pollinator Partnership webpage, you can type in your zip code and it will provide you with a guide to your particular Ecoregional Planting Guide. The Xerces Society has numerous guidelines describing how to establish wildflower meadows.  And Audubon International has a new program targeting the creation of milkweed and other pollinator friendly wildflowers on golf courses called Monarchs in the Rough.

These resources, and many like them, provide wonderful information, but an opportunity that is often missed is choosing the larger plants – trees and shrubs, for their pollinator benefits. Dr. Dan Potter and Bernadette Mach put together a Woody Ornamentals for Bee-Friendly Landscapes piece for the Ohio Valley Region. The resource includes whether the tree or shrub is native or nonnative, how often the trees are visited by bees, and bloom time.

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation teamed up to create a searchable database of plants with Special Value to Native Bees.

For a list of NY plants, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation teamed up to create a searchable database of plants with Special Value to Native Bees. A simple search of NY trees of special value to native bees has a search result of 57 results. It lists 105 NY shrubs. And you can, of course, also look to see what wildflowers are also noted as helpful to pollinators. (259 in case you were wondering.) You can narrow the search by specifying lifespan, light requirement, soil moisture, bloom time, bloom color, height, and leaf arrangement and retention.

Why bring this up now? Because many County Soil & Water Conservation Districts are hosting their annual tree and shrub sales. Often these are small, bare root seedlings, but if you are looking for an inexpensive step to up your pollinator game, consider purchasing from them.

If you have the room for multiple species, try to choose trees and shrubs that bloom at different times to provide a food source throughout the year.

For more information on pollinators, visit the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program page dedicated to Pollinators.

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” – Chinese proverb

March 1, 2018
by Mary M. Woodsen
Comments Off on Climate, Weather, Data: Change Is the Name of the Game

Climate, Weather, Data: Change Is the Name of the Game

Nearly two years ago, NYS IPM convened “Climate, Weather, Data,” a statewide conference focused on pests and our changing climate. Because it’s here. It’s real. So … what will a shifting climate mean for our farms and forests, our parks and gardens?

The Climate Change Garden plans and plants for the future. Photo credit E. Lamb.

We brought together researchers, crop consultants, farmers, and more from New York and the Northeast for an eye-opening glimpse into the future. One example must speak for the rest: the Climate Change Garden, housed at the Cornell Botanic Gardens, demonstrates how a range of food and nectar crops are like messengers from the future. They speak to the effects of warming oceans, drought, heavy rain, and rising temperatures on food crops, pollinator resources, and superweeds.

As if on cue, the winter of 2015-16 followed by the drought of 2016 (not to mention the rains and temperature swings of 2017) was a messenger from the future in its own right. Drought threw a monkey wrench into IPM-funded research intended to create weed forecasting models in both conventional and organic systems. Conclusions? As the researcher charitably put it, the unusual 2016 weather provided a good opportunity to look at the limiting impact of low soil moisture; with additional years of data collection, this should be a valuable year.

And take IPM research on the brown-marmorated stink bug, aka BMSB. Because of the staggering number of crops on its chow-list, and, come winter, its role as a most unwelcome houseguest in offices and homes, BMSB has plenty of people riled. But dramatic temperature swings in winter and spring (especially spring) tricked BMSB into ditching its cold hardiness too soon and falling prey to that last sudden cold snap.

We could go on, but do we need to? You get the picture. It’s a brave new world out there, and change is the name of the game.

 

February 21, 2018
by Mary M. Woodsen
Comments Off on Planning for pollinators: No time like now

Planning for pollinators: No time like now

$1.15 billion. That’s what the 450 species of wild pollinators that call New York home contribute to our agricultural economy each year. But we’ve seen alarming declines in pollinators of every stripe and color. Some are bees and wasps. Others are flies and butterflies (and on the night shift, moths). Their loss is worrisome to everyone from rooftop gardeners to farmers with a thousand-plus acres in crops. These people depend on pollinators to grow the foods we eat, foods ranging from pumpkins and pears to blueberries and beans.

In fact, anyone with a garden or even planter boxes on their balcony has reason to care about pollinators. And there’s no time like the present to start planning for this year’s pollinator plantings.

This hover fly is among the hundreds of wild pollinators that contribute to NY’s ag economy—not to mention our parks and yards. (Photo courtesy D. D. O’Brien.)

IPM’s mission covers everything from farms and vineyards to backyards and parks, protecting all kinds of non-target plants and animals (even covert pollinators like tiny bees and flies ). That’s why we were invited to help out in 2015 when Governor Cuomo announced an interagency task force, led by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets and the Department of Environmental Conservation, to develop and promote the New York State Pollinator Protection Plan, or PPP. In fact, New York is among the first 10 states to officially adopt a PPP.

The PPP was released in 2016. And the best thing is, it’s not going to stay on the shelf. This is a living document, a roadmap of sorts to guide IPM researchers and educators, farmers and householders as they plan IPPM—Integrated Pest and Pollinator Management protocols — to keep pollinators healthy for decades to come.

We’re pleased to be aboard.

September 21, 2017
by Mary M. Woodsen
Comments Off on It’s Hay Fever Season — and the Culprit Unmasked

It’s Hay Fever Season — and the Culprit Unmasked

[OK … so this isn’t strictly IPM. But it does shed light on a glorious native plant that gets a bad rap for making the allergy-prone among us miserable — and its weedy relative, found in city and country alike, that’s to blame. An IPM solution? Prevention, for one — education about weeding weedy city lots before ragweed flowers.]  

It’s late summer and we are awash in brilliant oceans of mustard-yellow goldenrod blooms. At the same time, hay fever symptoms are ramping up.

As goldenrod becomes the dominant wildflower on the scene, an increased pollen load in the air is making life miserable for those who suffer from allergies. Because of this correlation, it seems logical to blame goldenrod for your red itchy eyes, sinus congestion, sneezing, and general histamine-soaked misery.

Got hay fever? Don’t blame goldenrod. Photo Steve Burt, Creative Commons.

But there is an easy way to tell for sure if goldenrod is to blame — a one-question test: Have you noticed a lot of bees up your nose recently? If yes, then goldenrod might be guilty. If no, there is another culprit lurking about.

As one of the most abundant blooms of late summer and early autumn, this native wildflower is for many insects, including numerous bee species, a vital source of nectar as well as nutritious pollen.

Unfortunately, this latter item has given goldenrod a black eye among many allergy sufferers.

But consider this — goldenrod isn’t common in vacant city lots. And lots of hay fever suffers live in cities. Besides,  goldenrod can’t be guilty because its pollen is very heavy. That’s a relative term, I suppose, since it is light enough for bees to carry it around. Yet in the pollen realm it’s heavy—and is also very sticky—and can’t be blown far from the plant.

For goldenrod pollen to trigger an allergic response, someone or something would have to deposit its pollen directly into your schnozz. And in general, bees are not in the habit of doing so.

Will the real hay fever specialist please stand up? Photo Krzysztof Ziarnek Kenraiz, Creative Commons.

So who’s to blame for the spike in late summer allergies? Surprisingly, the culprit is goldenrod’s cousin, ragweed, although it doesn’t behave at all like its golden relative. Ragweed, another native plant, is also in the aster family, but unlike goldenrod it churns out loads of very light pollen.

Just how light? Ragweed pollen can remain airborne for several days, and significant quantities have been found as far as 400 miles out to sea. Ragweed easily colonizes vacant city lots, where a single ragweed plant can produce a billion pollen grains to fly on the breeze and make you sneeze.

Yep, this is the stuff that stuffs you up.

One reason we don’t suspect ragweed is that its blossoms are dull green and look nothing like a typical flower. It’s as if they’re trying not to attract attention. Because it’s wind-pollinated, it has no need to advertise with bright colors and sweet nectar to entice pollinators.

Turns out it’s way easier to attract wind than bees.

Most ragweed species—there are about 50 of them—are annual, but they come back year after year from the copious seeds they produce each fall. Ragweed will keep billowing allergens until the first hard frost, so let’s hope it’s not too much of an extended season this year. And let’s spread the word about goldenrod to spare it further false accusations.

[Our thanks to Paul Hetzler for his kind permission to use this story. Hetzler is a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County. Unedited original at https://blogs.northcountrypublicradio.org/allin/2017/09/10/dont-blame-goldenrod-for-your-bless-you-hay-fever-symptoms/]

 

August 16, 2017
by Mary M. Woodsen
Comments Off on Of pollinators and postage stamps — forever

Of pollinators and postage stamps — forever

Protect Pollinators. With these new Forever stamps, released on August 2nd, It’s all about the bees and the butterflies. Here, the monarch butterfly and western honey bee symbolize the thousands (yes, thousands) of native bees, hover and flower flies, beetles, wasps, butterflies, and moths at work throughout the Northeast, and across the continent on behalf of — well, there’s us, of course.

Two iconic pollinators. Four iconic wildflowers. Thank you, USPS.

In the U.S. roughly one-third of all food crops depend on pollinators.  And of course, we do love our flowers.

But it’s not just about us. It’s about biodiversity. Consider habitat fragmentation. Example? One house at a time, a forested tract grows houses. Then five at a time; then 10. Then maybe more and wider roads, more and bigger buildings.

Fewer and fewer flowers — and their pollinators.

And habitat loss is a biggie. It makes for less forage, fewer nesting sites. For losses in abundance and diversity. For reduced genetic diversity — and increased risk of extinction. Here in New York, among bees alone two pollinators are endangered and eight more are rare.

Going, going, gone? Image courtesy Emma Mullen.

And monarch butterflies? Starting in late summer, monarchs focus on fattening up to prepare for their epic, multi-generational migration to their overwintering site in Mexico, and it’s nectar they need. But a lawn won’t fatten them — or help other pollinators make it through the cold of a northern winter. Perhaps it’s time to consider making of your lawn an ornament of sorts, beautifully framed with flowers and meadows.

Among core values of IPM: building biodiversity. Why? Biodiversity is at the heart of healthy ecosystems. And healthy ecosystems keep us healthy too. So we thank you, USPS, for reminding us of to the beauty and importance of pollinators. All pollinators, and the biodiversity that supports them.

September 28, 2016
by Mary M. Woodsen
Comments Off on Move Over, Medusa: Pretty? Poisonous! in the Caterpillar Clan

Move Over, Medusa: Pretty? Poisonous! in the Caterpillar Clan

Our gratitude to Paul Hetzler, CCE St. Lawrence County, for letting us use this post. The IPM connection? ID those fuzzy beasts before you add them to your “warm and fuzzy” petting zoo. 

When I was a kid I was fascinated by caterpillars but had trouble with the word. To me, the sweet little woolly-bear traversing my hand was a “calipitter.” It was only years later I learned that a calipitter is an instrument used to measure the diameter of a caterpillar to the nearest micron.

Caterpillars continue to interest me, although I no longer find them universally cute. Imagine the letdown and loss of innocence following the discovery that some of these fuzzy, fascinating, gentle creatures that tickled their way across my hand were venomous. This revelation was akin to finding out Bambi was a dangerous carnivore, which in fact is a fear that haunts me to this day.

Stunning — and striking in a not-so-nice sort of way. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Stunning — and striking in a less-than-pleasant sort of way. White-marked tussock moth larvae, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

It seems a further injustice that many of the so-called “stinging-hair caterpillars” are among the cutest and most colorful out there. But at least they are not aggressive the way yellow jackets can be. They are strictly defensive, the defense being hollow hairs connected to poison glands that secrete toxins. The chemical cocktail is species-specific, and often involves serotonin, histamine, formic acid and various amino acids.

The hairs inject their charge only when the critter is roughly handled. Or falls down your shirt, or gets in your sleeping bag, or is pressed against your skin in some other way. Their stings cause a painful rash which could persist a week or more. Some people have more severe reactions requiring medical treatment.

You’d think poisonous caterpillars would be from exotic locales, but to my knowledge all in our region are natives. One large group is the tussock moth clan. These caterpillars look about as terrifying as teddy bears. Two examples are the hickory (Lophocampa caryae) and white-marked (Orgyia leucostigma) tussock moths, common locally. I’ve had many encounters with these and their kin over the years.

Hickory tussock caterpillars are mostly white, peppered with a smattering of longer black “whiskers.” White-marked tussock moth larvae look like they’re fresh out of clown school, with a yellow-and-black striped pattern, bright red head, a pair of super-long black appendages as a headdress, a row of lateral white hairs on each side, and four bright yellow (sometimes white) tufts behind their heads like a row of smoke stacks.

The stubby brown hag moth caterpillar (Phobetron pithecium) definitely does not look like a caterpillar. It could easily be mistaken for a dust-bunny or bit of lint. Sometimes known as the monkey slug, this oddity has eight furry, arm-like appendages and should get a prize for its resemblance to a plush toy. If you come across the monkey slug, do resist the impulse to cuddle it.

Much like the way poison-arrow frogs dress flamboyantly to advertise they’re a poor choice as prey, some toxic caterpillars have paint jobs even brighter than those of the tussock moths. For example, the brilliantly attired stinging rose (Parasa indetermina) and saddleback (Acharia stimulea) caterpillars might make you think some practical joker has set out miniature party piñatas. Eye-catching and bristling with barbs, no one is going to mistake them for a plush toy.

Fortunately, many poisonous caterpillars look the part. The Io moth (Automeris io), a huge moth bearing a striking eye-spot shape on each wing, starts out as a neon-green (red until its first molt) caterpillar crowded with serious-looking barbs. Going further afield, the giant silkworm moth caterpillar (Lonomia oblique) of southern South America has been responsible for as many as 500 human deaths — and it looks terrifying, too.

Keep in mind that just about every fuzzy caterpillar, venomous or not, can induce asthma. Those hairs are fragile and readily become airborne. Pests such as the eastern and forest tent caterpillars — and gypsy moths too — sometimes  occur in numbers so great enough to trigger asthma, especially in children. Even the beloved woolly bears (many species of the family Arctiinae) trigger attacks in some people.

What to do for a sting? Use Scotch or packing tape on your skin to pull out embedded caterpillar hairs (along with a few of your own). Wash the area and isolate clothing you think might harbor stray hairs. Monitor for several hours for signs of a serious reaction and otherwise treat the rash the way you would any sting with calamine lotion, antihistamines, or hydrocortisone lotion as directed by your doctor.

Let’s hope that having a few bad apples around will not keep you from appreciating caterpillars. Even the ugliest ones grow up to be moths and butterflies, many of which are beautiful. And they’re all important pollinators. Stay away from the ones described here but feel free to investigate all others.

Just be sure to take along your callipitter.

 

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