What do you do about winter moth? I am considering taking over the care of some apple trees, a woman wrote in an email. Winter moths have been epidemic along the New England coast and they will defoliate mature trees and leave them vulnerable to other pests and disease. The email went unanswered, but was on my mind.
A few days later, checking the new apple trees planted this spring in the upper part of the potato field, I saw small, dark caterpillars, three to six on each of the trees. Usually at this time of year I see a few green fruit moth caterpillars, but mostly I am troubled by the pale larvae of the leaf rollers bound inside the terminal buds. These little black caterpillars were new to me. The first day, I picked them off by hand rolling them between my thumb and a finger to end their lives. The next day I returned and saw a similar number on each tree. This time I had brought a small plastic container so I could take a few back to the house to identify the pest. I even wondered if it could be the winter moth caterpillar.
I looked with my loupe, a viewer that magnifies 15 times. The caterpillar was so energetic I had trouble keeping it in the center of the loupe. It was banded, meaning it had sections evenly spaced along its body. There were orange dots in each section and two stripes, one yellow and one white, running along each side. It had tufts of black hair sticking out all over its body and a large shiny black nose. Even with all these details, after an hour of combing through hundreds of photos, I still couldn’t positively identify it. But the more awkward part was that once I engaged with this caterpillar so intimately, it became a creature that I cared about. He or she was inquisitive and determined, two characteristics that I admire in my fellow humans. I no longer felt comfortable squeezing it to death. I put these specimens into our compost pile.
I do know how serious an infestation of winter moth can be. I’ve seen two-hundred-year-old beech trees completely denuded in Falmouth and a blueberry crop decimated. There is an option of spraying an early season oil that might smother the eggs. Then there is the certified organic spray, Entrust, an insecticide made by fermenting the soil bacterium, spinosad, which will kill caterpillars who ingest it. And, of course, it will kill any other insects, friend or foe, who also ingest the spray.
I choose not to spray organic insecticides on our fruit trees, but I don’t know what I will do if I am confronted with an epidemic of winter moth. We have caterpillar damage in the main orchard, but accept it. For now, I go out with some reluctance and pick off the caterpillars from the leaves of the new, young trees. Yesterday, there were fewer. My experience with pests is that unless there is an epidemic, there’s a first flush and then given a few days, it lessens. Maybe the tree produces what it needs to repel them after identifying the problem or the birds get to them as they grow bigger. I wonder whether the caterpillars are falling off the nearby oaks and then crawling over to the apples trees or coming up from the soil where they have incubated all winter. Curiously there’s a row of blueberries running through these trees without any caterpillars. Why are they only attracted to apples?
I could go on endlessly asking questions. I am comfortable with this state of not knowing. It’s what I cultivate in meditation and it’s where my art begins. Infused with both my desire to use apple branches in my art [art prunings blog post] and this caterpillar dilemma — though not thinking about it, yesterday, I went into the studio for a few hours and finished a piece I had started a few days earlier.
“Tufted Shovel with Apple Antennae”.
Finding a title for a piece is always an important part of my art making process. It feels like the final crystallization of the work. I would never have discovered this title without the caterpillar dilemma.
Maybe like a good scarecrow, it might work if I installed it among the apple trees.