Say It Ain’t So

Sitting at my computer this morning, faithfully writing my long-promised article on texture in the garden, my husband pokes his head in my office. “Hey,” he says, “Did you read the article in the paper about diseased trees in Calgary?” I hadn’t read it yet, so he elaborates a little, saying that according to the article, the recent harsh winters and wet springs are causing some problems with trees around the city. Of course he’d only skimmed the piece, because if he’d read the whole thing he may have thought better than to steer me towards it.

I get up from my desk, head to the kitchen for my coffee and open the weekly Garden Section. Finding the article I begin perusing it. “The city’s trees are under attack…..blah, blah, blah…’s an epidemic…..blah, blah, blah…..two main problems…….blah, blah, blah… outbreak of caterpillars…..blah, blah…” – say what? Back up the worm wagon! Did you say caterpillars?

Telling myself to relax, I think, “Oh it’s probably just leaf rollers or cabbage worms they’re referring to. Phew!” But then I remember the other day, while canvassing for the Diabetes Association’s spring campaign, I noticed what looked suspiciously like a tent caterpillar crawling on the wall of a neighbour’s house – I knocked it down, stomped on it and told my puzzled neighbour she should do the same if she ever sees another.

At this point I begin to get a real sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, so I keep reading……“mobs of crawling black caterpillars,” and finally the dreaded words, “forest tent caterpillar”. Ugh! Blech! Yuck! No, not here! Please say it ain’t so!

Now those of you who know me as Sue the fearless gardener, and have watched simultaneously impressed and disgusted, as I hand-pick slugs and step on them, squish cabbage worms with my fingers, or run an aphid-infested stem between my thumb and forefinger crushing them all in the process, my apparent phobic response to the beastly tent caterpillar may come as a surprise to you. But if you knew me as a teenager, living on the shores of Georgian Bay in rural Southern Ontario, you might recall a very different scene – me out riding my horse on a country road and squealing as I rode under a tree dangling with hundreds of the wiggly worms; or me recoiling in horror at the sight of huge dark masses of them on the aspens and birches that surrounded our country home, or the monster specimen I found crawling on a wall inside our house – I have the heebie-jeebies just writing this. Seriously, these things freaked me out so much that I’d carry an umbrella just to walk from the house to the car because the creepy critters literally fell from the sky (well from the trees actually).

So you can imagine my horror, when after living in Calgary for the last 3 decades, blessed with a caterpillar-free existence, I discover my little bubble has been burst. I’d of course heard mention of swarms of tent caterpillars in Northern Alberta and even as close as Cochrane, but I have never seen a single one in Calgary in all the years I’ve lived here! So yeah, I’m a little squeamish to the say the least, at the thought of an incursion of Malacosoma disstria into our fair city. But the dreaded forest tent caterpillar is more than just a nightmare for girly-girls like me – it can cause significant damage to a tree, indeed to whole forests, as they munch their way through leaf after leaf, tree after tree.

My last experience with them was a few decades ago when my husband and I decided to honeymoon at a beautiful resort in the Halliburton Highlands of Northern(ish) Ontario………………in June – the height of black fly season, mosquito season, and about the time the yucky caterpillars begin their trek, down from the trees, across streets and highways, to I-know-not-where. Yikes! What were we thinking? Anyway, driving through parts of the province, we could see the huge tracts of defoliated aspen forest. Barren. Trees with no leaves. It’s an alarming sight to say the least, and while most trees can refoliate within a few weeks, if defoliation occurs three or more years in a row, considerable tree mortality can result.

To make matters worse, when the mass migration of caterpillars crossed major roads, the result was millions of squished creepy-crawlies, making the roads greasy and the driving hazardous.

While the population of tent caterpillars is cyclical in nature, at least in the East, I have no intention of letting them spin their sticky strands on any of my trees or shrubs. So if you’ll excuse me I’m off to examine my leafy friends to look for signs of caterpillar activity, and for the sake of this girly gardener’s peace of mind, I ask that y’all do the same.

And I promise my next post won’t be about beasty bugs or birds – I have something more sumptuous for you to look forward to.

Til then,
© Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog 2012.Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sue Gaviller and Not Another Gardening Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

6 comments on “Say It Ain’t So

  1. I share your disgust at them, but they happen here too.

    • Hi Donna,

      I had hoped, since I’d never seen one here, that I had escaped them. Ah well, the good news is I still haven’t found any on any of my plants. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed.

      Thanks for reading,

  2. Curry Humphreys says:

    Here in good old Grey County (Ontario), the tent caterpillars have been plentiful. They really do fall from the sky (trees) and crawl over everything. I have been told they are cyclical so I am hoping this is the last year of the cycle. Curry

    • Hi Curry,

      Nice to hear from you, and thanks for corroborating my story. I suspect the creepy critters are more of a problem in your part of the country than they are here – I don’t envy you. You should try the umbrella thing – nothing worse than a wriggly caterpillar falling on your head. Anyways, thanks for reading.


  3. Grumpy Owl Designs says:

    After reading your article I promptly went out to my garden to surely find none. To my surprise, I found one on my Heucheras spinning its ghastly cacoon. I will now be doing a nightly patrol for them.
    Thank you for the info,

    • Hi Gabe,

      It’s good you only found one – ’cause where there’s one, there is bound to be one more.

      Hope you are busy putting your considerable design talent to work this season. I promise I’ll drop by your place to see how your new landscape fared over the winter.

      Thanks for being a faithful reader,


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