Browntail Moths and the Will to Garden

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Browntail moth – note the tail!

My post about Lyme Disease – especially my forgetting to freak out about it, thanks to worrying about Covid – prompted this email from reader Lorraine Streat in Maine.

Hello Susan,
I read your great article regarding deer ticks and Lyme Disease. In Maine, we gardeners battle deer ticks, black fly and worst of all, the Browntail Moth! Look that up if you want to give up gardening.

These moths infiltrate large swaths of areas for seven years at a time, killing their host trees by devouring their leaves, which depletes them of nutrients.

But the real problem to us humans are their tiny hairs that float in the air with the slightest bit of wind, breeze or puff. These hairs are microscopic and barbed, so when they brush past your skin they dig in and cause a rash – a rash that can cause serious respiratory problems for some folks. Trust me, I’ve been on Prednisone twice!


When a community is unlucky enough to be chosen as their next battleground, the Browntail Moths will lay their eggs in the tippy top of oak trees at the end of summer and lie dormant all winter. In spring, there is an explosion of hairy caterpillars with two easy-to-identify orange dots on their backs. They are crawling and swarming everywhere – on cars, houses, trees – thousands and thousands of them. They have no predators; birds stay away.

The local hospitals and clinics are inundated with gardeners, lawn-care workers, builders – anyone who’s working outside in the spring. Oh, I forgot to mention that neither PPE nor full hazmat suits will protect you – the barbs go through the suits! Pharmacists and assorted opportunists try to come up with creams and lotions to relieve the pain and discomfort that comes with the rash, but it usually doesn’t have much effect.

The rashes are similar to shingles; they cover large areas of the body, last for weeks to months and cause much pain. They mostly appear on faces, necks, arms, torsos, legs and worst of all, lungs. The hairs float on lake waters, so swimmers get covered The hairs settle in mulch so any disturbance to the ground causes trouble. And windy days are treacherous!

Not everyone reacts to the hairs. Some people have zero problems. Those of us who have an adverse reaction will bump into friends in town and spend hours commiserating with each other about their rashes, comparing creams, taking notes and showing off their welts. One remedy that has worked for me is to immediately use packing tape as a lint roller on my skin. This apparently pulls out the barbed hairs. I used a lot of packing tape last summer!

Some gardeners are trying to fight the moths with a systemic insecticide, but when you have 40 oaks on one residential lot and the professionals can charge up to $200 per tree for treatment, it’s financially impossible. My neighbor hired a crane to cut out the easy-to-identify nests at the top of oaks, spending a total of $5,000 for 25 trees for a crane and the systemic. There is a mildew that naturally kills the caterpillars, but you need perfect conditions for that to happen. Most of us are just waiting for the natural seven- year cycle to end, but some can’t wait and are giving up gardening and some are leaving the state!

I still love gardening and have ordered my spring bulbs for next year. I’ve learned to garden in the rain when the barbed hairs are powerless and unable to float or fly.

I’m not sure what other states have had the Browntail moth, but pray your state never gets them.

Happy gardening,

Lorraine.

Thanks for the warning, Lorraine – I guess. I mean OMG. And it’s not just Maine. Note this story from the U.K. Her face says it all!

On an upbeat note, I’m inspired by the indomitable will to garden shown by Lorraine and her remaining friends in Maine. I hope I’m long gone before they come to Maryland.

Photo credits: white moth, rash, mass of caterpillars, single caterpillar.

3 COMMENTS

  1. If the sores are shingles like, perhaps two essential oils, ravintsara and innophylum/callophhyllun, diluted with a mix of jojoba and fractionated coconut oil in a roller bottle will ease and heal the itching.

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