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The eastern tent caterpillar, Malacosoma americanum, is native to North America. Their populations naturally fluctuate from year to year,
with large spring outbreaks occurring every several years.
Caterpillar nests are commonly found on wild cherry, apple, and crabapple but may
be found on hawthorn, maple, cherry, peach, pear, plum, and others as well.
They can defoliate and significantly stress young trees, but mature trees are rarely
harmed and will regrow new leaves.
Tent caterpillar nests may appear unsightly to homeowners, especially when exposed
by severe defoliation. And numerous caterpillars crawling over sidewalks, driveways,
and on buildings may be considered a nuisance.
You can prune infested limbs to remove the silk tents. You can also treat trees with
Bt (which is very specific to caterpillars but must be consumed on foliage, and it
may harm other butterfly species). Treating nests with broad spectrum insecticides
usually only works on caterpillars smaller than 1 inch in length. Treating large
surfaces such as walls is rarely effective.
These insects will mature in about six weeks, and the moths will simply fly away.
They typically produce one generation per year.
In the future, you can also prune away limbs with overwintering egg masses before
they develop next spring to help limit their local population the following year.
They are fairly safe for children to pick up and play with. The caterpillars are
more likely to be injured by children if squeezed or dropped. Most birds will not
eat them because they have unpalatable hairs on their body. They are brightly colored
with stripes and spots, not camouflaged. If an insect is advertising its presence,
it's usually not afraid of being eaten. Most dogs/cats would probably find them distasteful.
The caterpillars themselves don't leave any toxic residue on garden produce. They
appear early and will be gone before most vegetables are ready. But you should wash
any fresh produce before eating it. Like many insects, they may have traveled across
the ground, so there is no telling what they may have stepped in along the way.
These caterpillars don't present any danger to us. They just seem to appear suddenly
in great numbers, and anything creepy-crawly in large numbers will make some people
uncomfortable. Just consider them native wildlife, which will be here for a short
time, then gone again until next spring.
Get pesticide recommendations for tent caterpillars.
Before purchasing or using any pesticide, always read and carefully follow the label
The caterpillars turn into moths, which will only live about 5 days or so as adults.
Adult moths do not feed, and will not harm vegetation or animals. The moths will
mate, deposit eggs and then die. These egg masses remain on trees all year, and then
hatch out next spring to begin the cycle again.