|SPRINGFIELD - This is the time of year when you might find your trees and shrubs under attack from the eastern tent caterpillar, a native defoliator, according to Patrick Byers, horticulture specialist, University of Missouri Extension.
Volunteers at the Greene County Master Gardeners helpline inside at the Greene County Extension have received a lot of calls about the caterpillar over the last two weeks meaning this pest is already active in the Ozarks.
Fortunately, control of tent caterpillars is usually simple, and natural predators often curtail outbreaks before they can inflict severe damage according to Byers. However, heavy infestations can weaken a tree by destroying a substantial number of leaves.
A "tent" made by the larvae of tree defoliating caterpillars is seen on this crabapple tree.
Tent caterpillars build their tightly webbed tents in the crotch of various trees and shrubs. Their favorites are fruit trees such as wild cherry, plum, apple and crabapple, Byers said.
They also feed on ornamental trees such as ash, birch, maple, oak and poplar. The insects rest during the day within the tent and crawl out at night to chew leaves and developing fruit. As each caterpillar leaves the nest, it will spin a strand of silk as it travels.
“Tent caterpillars overwinter in the shiny brown egg masses glued to twigs. The eggs usually hatch at about the same time as the tree buds begin to break open,” Byers said. The emerging larvae will crawl toward the trunk of the tree until they find a suitable site to form a tent.
You can easily dislodge and destroy larvae and nests using a broom or heavy water spray.
Dislodged tent caterpillars usually cannot get back onto the tree and often will fall prey to robins and other ground-feeding birds.
If tent caterpillars persist from year to year, you can prune egg masses from the limbs in the fall.
For more information, or answers to your specific lawn and garden questions, contact Byers or the Greene County Master Gardener Hotline at (417) 862-9284.