- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 25, 2006

HANOVER, Va. (AP) — Bill Henley’s wooded acres in Hanover County have been taken over by oakleaf caterpillars that feed on leaves and shower his property with their droppings.

“This has just been horrible,” Mr. Henley said, sweeping his foot across the porch’s dusting of tiny, seedlike caterpillar excrement and shredded leafs.

He already had cleaned the porch of their droppings. “Now, it’s covered again. It kind of gives you the creeps.”

His property is not unique: The pest is causing widespread defoliation in some of central Virginia’s rural communities.

The infestation has been reported in Chesterfield, Goochland, Hanover and Powhatan counties.

David Terwilliger, Hanover’s forester for the state department of forestry, has been to several homes to see the damage to old, tall trees.

“This is the first time I have even been aware of this insect being a pest,” said Mr. Terwilliger, who has been with the department for 23 years.

For the past few weeks, the forestry department’s county offices have fielded dozens of calls from residents who are worried they might lose their beautiful, old oak trees.

Mr. Terwilliger tells the callers most trees are healthy and safe — even if the caterpillars eat every leaf.

Still, he added, after two or three years of feeding by caterpillars, even a tough, old tree could die.

The oakleaf caterpillars are about 1 inches long, amber and green, and feed on foliage of deciduous trees, particularly the oak tree.

They typically strip trees of their leaves, then turn blood red and crawl to the forest floor. There, they pupate and become moths, then mate and lay eggs. Then the cycle begins anew.

Hanover’s bug problem appears to be the most extensive in the region, forestry officials said.

Mr. Terwilliger visited two Hanover homes as caterpillar droppings landed in his water cup. He stopped to watch a few of the insects nibble on the edges of some red-oak leaves.

“They’re kind of colorful little things,” he said.

Mr. Terwilliger said he doesn’t recommend chemical sprays to kill the caterpillars, unless there is concern about one special, old tree.

Population control comes every few years when parasites or other predators, such as beetles and birds, kill off the caterpillars, he said.

“We’re hoping that nature is going to control the outbreak,” he said.

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