BRUNSWICK — They strip trees of their leaves, and their hair, floating on the summer breeze, can strip some people of their sanity.
They are browntail moth caterpillars, and there are a lot of them in Brunswick this year.
The invasive insect is covered with little hairs that get blown off in the wind, especially when they are molting. The fibers can cause “a blistery, oozy rash or respiratory distress” in people that come in contact with them, according to the Maine Forest Service.
Kathy Wilson, a town councilor who also owns a pet grooming business, describes the reaction as “somewhere in between a rash and a little bite.”
A few weeks ago, she said the bumps started showing up on her arms and she didn’t know why.
“(But) as I went around and showed it to other people, they had the same thing,” she said. “It was the browntails.”
Wilson realized she must have been exposed to hairs caught up in the fur of the dogs she groomed. “You just sort of itch,” she said. And there’s no “trick” to get rid of it.
“I’m usually so unallergic to this stuff … it really surprised me,” Wilson added.
Emergency department and walk-in staff at Mid Coast Hospital are familiar with symptoms like Wilson’s. Mid Coast is seeing “substantially” more patients this year with browntail moth-related reactions than previous years, according to spokesman Steve Trockman.
What makes the outbreak particularly insidious is that nobody knows why it’s happening.
“We don’t know, we honestly don’t,” Maine Forest Service entomologist Charlene Donahue said July 1.
The browntail moth population exploded last year, which was expected, Donahue said. Browntail moths are “outbreak species,” she explained, meaning their population goes through major spikes and dips.
But last year, “every single caterpillar must have survived and every single moth must have had lots and lots of eggs,” she said.
Even though the moths have been in the region for a century after accidentally being introduced in Somerville, Massachusetts, the mechanisms affecting their outbreaks “are not well understood,” she added.
There is an indication that a type of fungus kicks in when browntail populations get too high. Donahue says she has found evidence of the fungus in Bowdoinham, which has high numbers of caterpillars this year.
She didn’t find any caterpillar “cadavers” in Brunswick, though.
“I don’t want to give people false hope,” she said.
In the meantime, “there are several things that people can do to protect themselves from exposure,” according to Mid Coast’s Trockman.
“Avoid outside areas that are obviously infested with caterpillars, do not hang laundry outside to dry during June and July, wipe down outside furniture before sitting in it, wear protective clothing … when mowing, raking, or removing browntail moth webs, and take a cool shower and change clothing after performing any activity that might involve contact with the hairs,” he said.
You can also “wet down areas with a hose first, or work on damp days,” he added.
One can also be aware of areas where the caterpillars reside. On May 23, Brunswick Cal Ripken Baseball posted on its website that browntail caterpillars were “all over” both Lishness and Edwards Fields in east Brunswick.
“Avoid contact,” they recommended, “and if you are close to one, don’t flick it.”
The forest service website says the caterpillars prefer to eat the leaves of hardwood trees and shrubs, and tend to concentrate in those types of vegetation.
Trockman said people who are experiencing severe skin reactions or respiratory trouble should see their doctor, or go to emergency treatment.
His hospital’s facilities are “able to handle this surge,” he said.
As for Town Councilor and pet groomer Kathy Wilson, after several weeks of rashes, the irritation is finally beginning to die down.
“I don’t know why,” she said, suggesting that as the caterpillars arrived mysteriously, they may leave just as mysteriously, too.
The hair of the browntail moth caterpillar blows in the wind, and can cause allergic reactions ranging from rashes to respiratory distress.
Edwards Field, on Jordan Avenue in Brunswick, is a favorite spot for browntail moth caterpillars, according to local organizers of Cal Ripken Baseball. The larvae are especially attracted to the leaves of hardwood trees, according to the Maine Forest Service.