FREEPORT— The browntail moth has become a familiar nuisance, especially for people along the coast.
They start as troublesome caterpillars, whose microscopic, orange, hairs can cause a range of rashes and, in serious cases, respiratory infection. The often-airborne hairs are most abundant during May and June, before the caterpillars morph into moths in August.
But once the caterpillars are gone, does that really mean the problem is, too? That’s what worries Pam Olson.
Each morning, Olson and her husband John swat hundreds of small, white moths off the side of their Spar Cove Road house and from their garage door.
While the moths are harmless, they serve as a daily reminder of what may come next spring.
“A lot of people don’t think of what (browntail moth infestations) mean in the long run,” Olson said. “It’s just an insect, so what?”
Olson came down with the rash this spring, after moving to town from Ohio about three months ago.
Her neighbor, George Fraser, has lived in Freeport for about 30 years, and has noticed an increased infestation of browntail moths in the past five years or so.
This spring he and his wife, Julie, could not go on their porch for about a month because it was covered in caterpillars.
“This has been at least a 15-year issue,” Town Manager Peter Joseph said. “Like most things in nature, (the issue with browntail moths) kind of flares up and down.”
In February 2016, the town opted to rely on public information rather than aerial pesticide spraying to combat the infestation.
According to Joseph, the town tried an aerial spray about 10 years ago, but the effort proved ineffective. Many residents opted out due to the toxicity of the pesticides and the program was discontinued.
Joseph said many residents object to town-wide spraying, whether the pesticide used is conventional or organic.
“It hasn’t been devastating … but it is a moderate issue town-wide,” he added. “Certain neighborhoods are hit harder than others.”
In 2015, the town started a public outreach campaign with the hope of mitigating the problem. It sponsored public presentations from experts on the subject on how to identify and control browntail moths on private property. The town has also distributed information to residents via email, mailings, and town websites. The information included a list of local licensed arborists who can either clip branches or perform pesticide control of caterpillars on private properties.
But, Olson believes mailings and presentations aren’t enough.
“(The town) tells you how to identify (the moths and caterpillars) and think they’ve done their job,” she said. “… There’s not a whole lot that I, as a homeowner can do.”
Along with public health concerns, Olson said she worries about the elm trees in her yard, many of which look bare after the caterpillars nested in and fed from them this spring.
“After several seasons of this, trees cannot continue photosynthesis, they’re going to die,” Olson said. “If they die, they’ll eventually fall … it is a safety hazard waiting to happen … I’m sure there is something more (the town) can at least try.”
Fraser said two of the four oak trees in his yard have been completely stripped of leaves.
In a July 18 email to Joseph, Olson said, “Freeport is negligent by not being proactive in seeking solutions.”
Olson said she tried calling one of the arborists suggested by the town to find that they were so busy, they weren’t taking any new customers.
In the email, Olson suggested alternate measures the town could take, such as introducing a entomopathogenic fungus to infested areas. This type of fungus can act as a parasite of insects, killing or seriously disabling them.
Fraser, her neighbor, said his understanding is that “there are newer sprays the town could use that are completely biodegradable and safe.”
However, Charlene Donahue, an entomologist with the Maine Forest Service, said in an email to Joseph that “most (fungi) are very difficult to produce (and) tend to lose virulence unless grown in the host.” She added that many are weather-dependent.
Donahue began working on entomopathogenic fungi 40 years ago. She said research on browntail moths is being done by the MFS, including testing one of the few fungi that can be commercially produced. She added that research is “not cheap.”
“I would say we would consider anything,” Joseph said. However, at the moment he feels there is not much the town can do to alleviate concerns.
“All I want to do is get a conversation going,” Olson said. “You can’t just shrug your shoulders at (the issue) … I’m ready to be vocal about it because I don’t see anyone doing anything.”
Each morning, Pam and John Olson find hundreds of browntail moths covering the side of their home on Spar Cove Road in Freeport. Although the moths are harmless, once they reproduce, thousands of caterpillars will infest the area, eating away at trees and spreading health problems to many who come in contact with their microscopic hairs.