The invasive browntail moth caterpillar. Credit: Courtesy of the Maine Forest Service

The worst season yet for the browntail moth hasn’t spared Bangor, with residents reporting rashes and the city preparing to take action as kids gear up to participate in summer camps.

Browntail moth caterpillars have long been reported along Maine’s coast, but this appears to be the first time in recent memory that they’ve become prevalent across Penobscot County, according to experts. Contact with the caterpillars’ tiny, poisonous hairs can cause skin irritation comparable to poison ivy that can last several weeks. Respiratory problems can also occur.

Amanda Umble’s forearm is pictured shortly after she believed she was exposed to the hair of a browntail moth caterpillar earlier this week. Credit: Courtesy of Amanda Umble Credit: Courtesy of Amanda Umble

Direct contact is not even necessary for the irritation to occur. The caterpillars’ tiny hairs can remain on trees, in gardens and on tables. They can also go airborne and remain in the environment for up to two or three years once they are shed.

Amanda Umble, 37, of Bangor doesn’t recall ever making contact with one, and she initially was unsure why her forearm was so itchy. She thought it might be fleas but doubted that explanation because all her animals were treated.

She became convinced it was from browntail moths after seeing other posts about them on the “Fairmount, Bangor” Facebook group, a neighborhood group with more than 1,600 members. The moths and how to treat the resulting rashes have dominated discussion in recent weeks.

The worst part of the rash, according to Umble, is the constant scratching. It especially became a problem when she tried to sleep.

“It feels like you have bugs in your bed,” Umble said. “It feels like things are on me the whole night biting me.”

She first tried Benadryl cream, which didn’t help, and then Cortizone 10, which worked better. She had the best experience mixing the two anti-itch creams and is finally starting to see the rash clear up after about a week.

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The moths have been present in Bangor in past years, but not nearly to the extent that they have been this year, said Jim Dill, pest management specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

While the caterpillars hatched last year, they have been out feeding since around the end of April. They are making contact with people now because they are moving and looking for a place to pupate — or, make the transition to a moth — said Dill, who is also a state senator representing much of Penobscot County north of Bangor, including Orono and Old Town.

The caterpillars’ preferred hosts are fruit trees, including apple trees, and oak trees, though they can also go in others, including maple trees. People should be cautious outdoors, especially around oak and apple trees, and hose down picnic tables and chairs before sitting on them to avoid potential exposure to the hairs, Dill said.

Fairmount Park in Bangor on Thursday. There have been reports of contact with browntail moth caterpillars and their hairs in parks around the city, Bangor Parks and Recreation Director Tracy Willette said Thursday. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

If you make contact, Dill said, there are several treatments for rashes, including cortisone cream, calamine lotion and steroid creams. He recommended that those with severe rashes consult a doctor.

Widespread reports of the caterpillars in Bangor’s parks began earlier this month, Bangor Parks and Recreation Director Tracy Willette said. This is the first time his department had ever been required to deal with them on a wide scale.

Bangor city staff, including the public works department’s forestry division, is working on a response plan to combat the moths, Willette said.

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The seeming spread of the moths comes as Bangor Parks and Rec revs up to begin its summer camp program by the end of the month. All three camps, at the 14th Street, Fairmount and Mary Snow schools, are fully booked, Willette said, with 200 students from kindergarten through sixth grade attending.

Dealing with the moths will be a topic of discussion during staff training, Willette said, with camp staff remaining vigilant and working with parents to ensure their children are safe, just as they have long done with other potential exposures that can occur in nature.

“We will certainly take every precaution that we can and be on the lookout for these things,” Willette said.

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