A caterpillar climbs a tree branch.
This 2017 photo shows a browntail moth caterpillar in Maine. Credit: Holland Haverkamp / University of Maine via AP

Try as individuals and municipalities might to eradicate them, the fact remains that browntail moths are likely going to be a permanent part of the seasonal equation going forward in much of Maine.

Specifically, the problem is the caterpillars, which eat the leaves off trees and have tiny hairs that become airborne and can cause a painful, itchy rash and respiratory problems if inhaled. The caterpillars have long been reported along Maine’s coast, but they’ve since spread inland.

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Bangor-area towns have taken their own approaches to dealing with browntail moths — from clipping nests earlier in the spring to developing comprehensive maps of moth sightings.

In Bangor, nests, caterpillars and moths have been spotted citywide, although the largest concentration appears to be on the city’s west side. Though there’s no specific answer as to why there appear to be more moths in that part of town, it does include the 240-acre Bangor Municipal Golf Course — a mixed wood and grass paradise for both golfers and toxic insects.

In late winter and early spring, Bangor’s public works department went around the city, clipping browntail moth nests from trees, shrubs and structures. In cooperation with the city’s parks and recreation department and with public input, public works also created an inventory of where moths were spotted. Residents can submit sightings on the city of Bangor’s website.

“We’re trying to track the locations around town as best we can, and we clipped those nests to the best of our ability,” Bangor Parks and Recreation Director Tracy Willette said. “We’re going to keep doing that, so we can be as prepared as possible each year.”

In Orono, the town began clipping nests over the winter, and also created a map to track where nests and caterpillars have been sighted. There have been significant clusters in downtown Orono, and in the wooded residential area between Interstate 95 and Main Street.

In Hampden, town officials compiled a list of resources for community members to learn how to remove them from their property and how to safely use pesticides to kill them.

By now, however, any remaining nests in the area have mostly all hatched, and the caterpillars, with their tiny, hazardous hairs, have begun clustering in trees and under eaves. The caterpillars don’t pupate and emerge from cocoons as moths until sometime starting in mid-July.

The city will not apply pesticides to public properties due to the fact that a wide variety of people use them and some people can have dangerous reactions to the chemicals, according to Bangor Public Works.

That said, homeowners can apply their own pesticides to their property, either on their own or with the help of a pest control service. Pesticide effectiveness wanes as the caterpillars grow in size, however, so it behooves homeowners to apply them as soon as possible.

Otherwise, people should probably just prepare themselves over the next month or two for potential encounters with the caterpillars. If your area had them last year, it will probably have them again this year — unless we get a rainy June, which can cause a fungus that kills the caterpillars, according to Maine Forest Service entomologist Tom Schmeelk.

“A lot of the areas that have [had] really high populations of browntail will likely have high populations of browntail again this year, unless we do get some rain a little bit later in May here,” Schmeelk told the Bangor Daily News earlier this month. “[Improvement is] not likely, unless we get that weather.”

To limit exposure to the hairs, Schmeelk recommends doing yard work on days after it has rained, or after wetting down an area first, to help prevent the hairs from becoming airborne while you work. If you see a cluster of caterpillars, you can either leave it alone and avoid it, or spray it down with a powerful hose before vacuuming them up with a filtered vacuum cleaner.

If you are exposed to the hairs and develop a rash, the Maine Forest Service recommends you immediately wash the exposed area with cold soapy water, or take a cool shower, and wash the clothes you were wearing. Home remedies for the itch include over-the-counter products such as Benadryl or diphenhydramine cream, Calamine lotion, Aspercreme or lidocaine cream, hydrocortisone cream and witch hazel.

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Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.