TOPSHAM, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- State forestry officials are warning residents of a large portion of the state to take steps now to eradicate the invasive browntail moth.
"We are seeing browntail moth populations just really skyrocketing," stated Charlene Donahue, a Maine Forest Service entomologist. "This year it is probably double what it was last year, and last year was bad."
The browntail moth is native to Europe, but has been in New England for over a hundred years. It was mistakenly imported on plants and shrubs and was once found in an area stretching from southern New England to Nova Scotia, but in recent years has only been found in along the southern coast of Maine and on Cape Cod.
In some neighborhoods in the greater Brunswick area, the moth's nests can be seen in the canopy of trees in every direction - near schools, playing fields and houses, but there are steps people can take to eliminate the bugs before they become a problem.
Property owners who find nests in low-lying branches can prune the trees and soak the nests in soapy water or burn them. For nests located in the top of tall trees, as many are, the only option is calling in professional help, according to Donahue.
"Pesticides aren't the answer to everything, but in this case, they are very few other tools," she said. "If they are up in the tops of oak trees, then you really need to hire a professional pesticide applicator that has the equipment and knows how to use the chemicals to control the browntail moth."
Donahue says they are not sure why the population has exploded this year. She says they are most concerned about the health effects the caterpillar's toxic hairs on people and not as concerned about the destruction the insects can cause to trees.
"You get a rash like poison ivy," explained Donahue. "That is the most common effect, and it can take a number of weeks for it to go away, and then in sensitive individuals, you can have respiratory distress from breathing in the hairs."
She recommends people wear long sleeved shirts and pants while working and playing outside to reduce the risk of exposure and to take the clothes off immediately when entering the home and washing them to keep the hairs out of the home. She also advises property owners to mow when it is wet out to keep the amount of caterpillar hair in the air to a minimum and says people in infested areas not dry their clothes outside.
If you would like more information, including a list of licensed pesticide applicators, tips on identifying browntail moth nests and other resources, you can find the Maine Forest Service browntail moth website by clicking here.