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For moths, life's a trap

Top: The gypsy moth is small with a wing span of about one-and-a-half inches. The female moth is white with brown markings; the male, which is slightly smaller, is tan with brown markings. Below: Jack Smith of the state Department of Agriculture checking for Gypsy moths in a trap set at Freeland park. - Gayle Saran
Top: The gypsy moth is small with a wing span of about one-and-a-half inches. The female moth is white with brown markings; the male, which is slightly smaller, is tan with brown markings. Below: Jack Smith of the state Department of Agriculture checking for Gypsy moths in a trap set at Freeland park.
— image credit: Gayle Saran

Jack Smith is a trapper with 550 traps in Island County. His prey is the voracious, tree-destroying gypsy moth. But each time Smith checks his traps he hopes to find them empty.

"The purpose of these traps is not to capture and destroy, but to find where the gypsy moths are," said Smith, an employee of the state Department of Agriculture.

If he ever does find a serious infestation, the state could order spraying in Island County. These voracious creatures in their caterpillar stage are a real threat to timber, farming and even urban neighborhoods.

They will dine on 500 varieties of deciduous trees and shrubs.

"The Asian gypsy moth will even go after evergreens," said Smith.

Last year Smith found two gypsy moths in the Oak Harbor area. So far this year he hasn't found any in Island County, but he will continue checking through September.

"The two in Oak Harbor were the first ever to be discovered in Island County," said Smith.

For that reason there is a heavier concentration of traps in Oak Harbor this year.

On South Whidbey traps are placed every quarter-mile on the west side of the island from Possession Point to Deception Pass, inland every square mile.

"A higher density is placed along shorelines, navigable waterways, and areas where past gypsy moth activity has occurred," said Smith.

Stories of horror are repeated from individuals who have experienced infestations on the East Coast. John Lundberg, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture, said gypsy moths can strip a tree entirely of its leaves.

"When the caterpillars were eating, residents could hear them crunching, and their drippings were a steady patter of sound that turned into a slimy mess when it rained," he said.

Island County's chief trapper wants to help guard against this happening on the island. He travels from door to door, asking home and property owners to allow him to place traps in their yards or on their land.

Gypsy moths can travel attached to vehicles, inside ships and on any household equipment or furniture that has been outdoors. They lay egg masses about the size of a quarter and resembling a brown leaf or a muddy patch. One egg mass can hatch 1,000 caterpillars.

Once the eggs hatch, tiny caterpillars throw out silk-like strands until they latch onto a tree or plant.

Though caterpillars have little interest in Smith's traps, the adult moths find them attractive. The traps are easy to spot. They are bright green pyramid shaped boxes hanging on tree branches. Inside hangs a plastic loop coated with the pheromones of a female gypsy moth. The surface of the trap's interior is sticky, making it impossible for the male moth if there is one to fly away.

Statewide, trappers have set 18,600 traps.

The two moths found last year were near the Naval Air Station base. If any moths are found this year,

entomologists will look for signs of breeding. Treatment done via aerial spraying.

Two years ago, a single hatch of eggs laid by an Asian gypsy moth prompted spraying a square mile in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. This year, 16 acres in the Crown Hill area of Seattle were sprayed, as well as the small, Lewis County town of Vader.

Lundberg said only about 30 gypsy moths were found in the entire state last year in the 20,000 traps set out.

The Asian variety of the moth is much greater threat to Washington than the European variety because it eats evergreen as well as deciduous trees. And, unlike the European moths, the Asian female can fly, spreading an invasion more quickly and much further.

Vigilance has paid off. Since the trapping program began in Washington 28 years ago, the gypsy moth has been successfully eradicated by target spraying.

Washington has no permanent populations of gypsy moths because of an aggressive summer trapping program, which identifies where gypsy moth activity is occurring around the state, followed by a spring eradication program in areas where infestations are detected.

Eight ports on Puget Sound, one in Grays Harbor, and three on the Columbia will be heavily trapped because gypsy moths often arrive on ships from foreign countries. The eight ports to be trapped on Puget Sound are Port Angeles, Port Townsend, Bellingham, Anacortes, Everett, Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia. The three ports trapped on the Columbia River are Kalama, Longview, and Vancouver.

Where'd it come from

The gypsy moth was brought to the United States from Europe over a hundred years ago, got loose through accident, and quickly established residency in Massachusetts. It has proved extremely resistant to eradication efforts. It has steadily expanded to 18 states and the District of Columbia despite being the subject of more eradication and control strategies than any forest insect in U.S. history.

Gayle Saran / staff photos

Jack Smith inspects the gypsy moth trap at Freeland Park, a regular stop on his circuit of Whidbey and Camano Islands. The traps, bright green and orange cardboard pyramids, are placed on trees every square mile inland and every quarter mile along the shoreline.

The Gypsy Moth was brought to the U.S. from Europe over a hundred years ago, got loose through accident, and quickly established residency in Massachusetts. It has proved extremely resistant to eradication efforts. It has steadily expanded to 18 states and the District of Columbia despite being the subject of more eradication and control strategies than any forest insect in U.S. history.

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