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The moth cometh to Kitsap

KEYPORT — Imagine if thousands of grizzly bears descended upon Kitsap County, looking to feed on human flesh and devour the peninsula’s population.

From a tree’s or plant’s perspective, that’s exactly the plight most every species faces when dealing with a particularly devastating kind of moth.

By now, “Lymantria dispar” — more commonly known as the “gypsy moth” — has begun its tirade, chowing down on the some of the county’s most lush green spaces. Though far more prevalent on the East Coast, the moths consume about 1 million acres per year of foliage around the U.S.

However, the moth’s days in Washington may be numbered, thanks to efforts by Harold Frost and others in the Pest Control Division of the Washington Department of Agriculture.

Frost oversees seven other trappers in a six-county area, from Clallam to Pierce to Mason to Kitsap. He said local trapper Clifford Head has installed more than 900 devices in Kitsap County alone.

The bucolic neighborhood of Evergreen Ridge, just above Keyport, has the highest concentration of traps in the state — about 130. WSDA put so many there because a year ago, almost 50 percent of the moths trapped in the state were caught there.

Elsewhere, there are 100 traps near the Kitsap County Fairgrounds, as a moth was found last year along Stampede Road. There’s another 100 on Bainbridge Island along Day Road.

The rest in the county are spread out to about one trap per square mile.

The WSDA uses a small bright green, triangular trap that has a small, looped string inside, scented with the pheromone a female moth produces in an effort to attract the mature males.

Finding a gypsy moth is a bit like locating a needle in a haystack, Frost said. Out of the 900 gypsy moth traps in Kitsap, they’ll find five moths, “if we’re lucky,” he said.

But the purpose of the July and August trapping season, ironically, is not to eradicate them, he added. It’s simply to find out where they’re located.

There’s a good possibility that the male moth has already bred with the female by the time they’ve been trapped, in which case it’s nearing death and has already paved the way for 1,000 new babies.

While the moths are still caterpillars in the early spring, is the best chance to wipe out the foliage eaters. Helicopters will cover the moth-affected areas — ones the summer trappers determined have moth populations — with a spray known as “Btk,” that is an naturally occurring organic insecticide that poses virtually no threat to any species other than caterpillars.

Frost said that it’s difficult to distinguish if a moth has been defoliating your own yard.

“It would look just like you had a tent caterpillar,” he commented.

Though the European moth that has shown up in Kitsap — likely thanks to a traveling RV or moving van from the 19 states that don’t eradicate the moth — the situation could be worse, reported Frost.

The female Asian gypsy moth can do something her European counterpart can’t — fly up to a mile. That means it can cover a lot more ground with her eggs. And to make matters worse, Asian moths will even eat evergreen trees, a species the European moths won’t snack on. Only one Asian moth has ever been spotted in Washington, near Spokane.

Should you suspect there’s a gypsy moth eating everything in sight in your yard, contact WSDA at PestProgram@agr.wa.gov or call (800) 443-6684. The department is always on the lookout for new sightings.

“If we catch a moth in your backyard, we’ll bring in 100 traps or so,” commented John Lundberg, Pest Program Public Information Officer for WSDA.

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