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Sunday, May 19, 2013

You Say "Cicada," I say "Western Tent Caterpillar"





As usual, the East Coast gets all the attention. "Entire nation flamb├ęd in summer heat" cries the network weatherman, while Seattleites watch the fireworks in down jackets. So it goes with insect infestations.

Seventeen-year cicadas are all the rage, with live coast-to-coast coverage of the Eastern Seaboard's current eruption of noisy, red-eyed tree-huggers (no, I'm not referring to hippies celebrating marijuana legalization). But if Central Park were located in Puget Sound, (well, it would be under water, but stay with me on this) New Yorkers would be fleeing down Broadway clutching their knishes a desperate attempt to escape Seattle's very own Zombie Apocalypse: The Western Tent Caterpillar.

Being native to the West Coast, these bugs are more laid back than cicadas about keeping to a strict timetable. But roughly every decade or so little dun-colored moths with cute fuzzy faces and feathery antennae slather the trees with gray, styrofoam-like egg cases that expertly mimic the bark to which they cling. As it so happens this camouflage is totally unnecessary because the entire operation takes place in the fall when it's raining so torrentially that no Seattleite in his or right mind would go outside to witness a slug performing Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" on a tiny Fender Stratocaster, much less look for tent caterpillar eggs.

By spring, it's too late. The eggs hatch, and rivers of orange caterpillars begin flowing along the branches of every deciduous tree, stripping the leaves bare and filling the canopy with thick webs.

Within a few weeks entire neighborhoods look as though they've been toilet-papered by a fraternity over Halloween, all bare branches draped in white webbing. A walk through a grove of now-naked alder trees is accompanied by a white noise hiss of falling caterpillar poop.

When the creatures run out of leaves they go in search of more. Their tour-group-like habit of following each other causes them to trudge around and around houses, cars and lawn furniture in ever-growing masses. They're on the driveway. They're on your clothes. They're falling into your latte while you gaze hopelessly at your denuded garden.

The caterpillars dominate every conversation. Behind in homework? Tent caterpillars. Arguing with your spouse? Tent caterpillars. Late to work? Tent caterpillars (to paraphrase Dave Barry, I am not making that up. They crawl across roads in such numbers that they slicken the pavement, causing accidents).

The traditional remedy involves cutting the nests out of the trees and burning them. Unfortunately, every outbreak sees a few deep-frying-turkey-type accidents as a result of this practice. It's also ineffective, as the caterpillars are out foraging during the day. They laugh at the hapless gardener stomping out the flames on his $400 Patagonia jacket, their mouths full of foliage from the prized cherry tree.

Thankfully what nature giveth nature taketh away. Just when the line from the movie "Aliens" about nuking the site from orbit comes to mind, biology is one step ahead of you. Tent caterpillars are preyed upon by minute wasps whose reproductive habits were an inspiration for the creature in that film. It takes a few weeks for the wasps to catch up, but eventually each caterpillar has a tiny white egg stuck to its body. Nature takes its course, and by midsummer all that's left are empty caterpillar husks, each bearing an astonishing resemblance to Keith Richards.

The trees leaf back out and all's right with the world for another decade or so.

So, all you East Coasters enjoy your sweet little cicadas. Out here, we've got real pests.