Maine Leaders Work to Protect Trees and Residents From Invasive Pest

Browntail moth caterpillars are damaging plants like the famous Candelabra Tree in Portland, Maine, and their hairs can impact the health of humans

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Mainers are fighting a persistent problem on new battlefields — browntail moths are causing acute headaches in Portland and Waterville this year.

In the latter city, leaders declared an emergency to combat the invasive moths' presence and their effects on residents.

The hairs of browntail moth caterpillars can cause, among other symptoms, a very itchy rash.

Meanwhile, in Portland, a special 100-year-old pin oak, known as the Candelabra Tree and familiar to thousands of drivers who pass it in Deering Oaks Park each day, is recovering after the caterpillars ate a number of its buds earlier in the spring.

"We did a web count in January, and we were really surprised at the numbers," said Jeff Tarling, Portland's arborist.

While at least one third of the tree was missing leaves at the beginning of spring, it has since almost fully recovered, despite dry conditions that inhibited a fungus that curtails the moths from growing.

"It's probably 80-90% back, you can see the crown's pretty thin," Tarling said in an interview below the tree with NECN and NBC10 Boston Friday.

Tarling explained that the recoveries of this tree and others in the park were able to happen thanks to pre-dawn leaf sprays and tree injections, all with environmentally-conscious insecticide.

The city also put mulch around the Candelabra Tree, as well as other trees and rose bushes the caterpillars began eating, in order to keep precious moisture in the soil below them.

Asked if tools to fight the moths are improving, Tarling said the various methods of killing moths the city uses are getting better in that they are more targeted at bad pests and less harmful to pollinators like bees.

He suggests that anyone who is combating browntail moths at home might want to consider doing research and "think about a plan" before cutting down a tree that's defoliated, because it may be treatable, making tree removal unnecessary.

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