SMITHFIELD, R.I. (WPRI) — The Winter Moth caterpillar is about an inch long, and looks harmless enough. Still, it’s been doing some serious munching on so many deciduous trees in Rhode Island: oak, maple, ash, basswood, elm, beech and fruit trees.
The Winter Moth is an invasive species originally from Europe. It eats away at leaves, making them look like they’ve been hit with buckshot. In some cases, the leaves are completely gone, says Bruce Payton, the deputy chief of the Department of Environmental Management’s Forest Environment Division: “If the tree gets totally defoliated, it will have to refoliate, and to do that it’s going to use a lot of energy. And if this happens time and time again, year after year, the tree could die.”
Payton is especially concerned because the population of Winter Moths is growing. In 2008, most reports were confined to the East Bay, in places like Bristol and Tiverton. But now, trees all over Rhode Island are being reported as damaged.
How do you stop it? “Some people are spraying their trees. That can help individual trees, but it can be costly,” said Payton.
A tree that has begun the defoliation process will need water to rebuild its leaves.
The DEM is releasing a “parasitoid” fly this year — the third year it’s done it — which feeds on the Winter Moth. But it’s likely to take several years before it makes much of a dent in the moth population.
If you’re seeing your trees being eaten away, you’re advised to notify the DEM.