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Eastern tent caterpillar can be a serious pest on cherry, plum, peach, pear, and several other deciduous shade trees. Some experts considered this pest to be a significant defoliator of deciduous shade trees in the northeastern United States.
Eastern tent caterpillar
Larvae vary in size from 10 mm (3/8 inch) upon hatching to 50 mm (2 inches) long when fully grown. The caterpillars are primarily brown and are thinly covered with light brown hairs. A white stripe on the back is bordered with reddish-brown stripes and a row of oval blue spots. The adult moths are brown with a wingspan of about 45 mm (1 3/4 inch). Two narrow, lighter-colored bands may appear on the first pair of wings.
The egg mass of this species encircles small twigs and appears to be varnished. The egg mass may be nineteen millimeters. Small larvae spin fine strands of silk wherever they crawl. As the larvae grow, so does the size of the tent. Fully grown larvae are about two inches long, generally black with a white stripe down the middle of the back.
Mature caterpillars will leave the host tree to search for a suitable place to spin their pale yellowish cocoons. During late June and July the reddish-brown adult moths with two oblique, white bands on the forewing emerge from their cocoons. After mating, the female deposits eggs in a mass around small twigs on a host plant.
Eastern tent caterpillar moth
Caterpillars have chewing mouthparts. Adults have siphoning mouths. Eastern tent caterpillars prefer cherry, plum, peach, apple, hawthorn and related plants. If the food plant is defoliated they may move to less preferred hosts. Caterpillars leave their tents to feed on leaves and can quickly defoliate sections of a tree. Caterpillars may migrate and wander before they form a cocoon which may bring them into contact with homeowners. Adult moths are attracted to lights and can be abundant but only live for a few days.
Life Cycle: Eastern tent caterpillars spend the winter in the egg stage in masses containing several hundred eggs. The eggs hatch in early spring, about the time apple and cherry leaves unfold. After hatching, the young caterpillars, sometimes from several egg masses, gather in a fork in the branches where they construct a web-like tent. The tents are used as shelter by the caterpillars when they are not feeding on the leaves of nearby branches.
Eastern tent caterpillars feed from four to six weeks and then disperse to various locations to spin cocoons and pupate. Cocoons may be found on fences, houses, in weeds and ground debris, and on the trunks of infested trees. When the adult moths emerge in mid-summer, egg masses are laid on small twigs, sometimes on the stems of very small trees. Only one generation occurs per year, and these eggs will not hatch until the following spring.
Eastern tent caterpillar Larvae
Damage: One or two colonies can completely defoliate small trees. Periodic, major outbreaks result in numerous colonies in larger trees which can also do considerable defoliation. Since this defoliation occurs early in the season, the plants must set out new leaves at considerable energy expense. Besides making a tree look unsightly with the webs it constructs in the crotches of limbs and branches, the caterpillars arouse much concern among area residents when they migrate in mass in search of new food or a place to complete their development. During periods of migration, caterpillars may be seen by the thousands traveling over roads, streets, driveways, and sidewalks .
Control: Natural enemies play an important role in reducing eastern tent caterpillar numbers in most years. Caterpillars are frequently parasitized by various tiny braconid, ichneumonid, and chalcid wasps. Several predators and a few diseases also help to regulate their populations. This, in part, accounts for the fluctuating population levels from year to year.
Prevention and early control is important. Removal and destruction of the egg masses from ornamentals and fruit trees during winter greatly reduces the problem next spring. In the early spring, small tents can be removed and destroyed by hand. Larger tents may be pruned out and destroyed or removed by winding the nest upon the end of a stick. Burning the tents out with a torch is not recommended since this can easily damage the tree. Young caterpillars can be killed by applying an insecticide containing Bacillus thuringiensis var kurstaki. Other insecticides include carbaryl, methoxychlor, and malathion. Larvae within the tents are protected beneath the webbing.
Eastern tent caterpillar damage
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