Caterpillars feasting on oak and other hardwood trees are defoliating wooded areas and backyards across the state.
Heather Faubert, a plant specialist at the University of Rhode Island, attributes this year’s infestation to a drought last May. She said diseases usually keep caterpillar numbers low.
“But when we had the driest May on record, those diseases weren’t spread until it really started to rain. And by that time, the caterpillars had advanced, matured, and then those females laid eggs,” said Faubert.
Those eggs survived over the winter.
According to Faubert, these leaf-eaters will mature into moths or die off within the next three weeks, allowing trees to re-grow their leaves.
In the meantime, one resident described snow-like conditions in the backyard as bits of leaves fall to the ground. Environmental experts say the caterpillars can chew leaves down to the veins, so their impact on trees is easily visible.
Gypsy moth caterpillars are defoliating trees across the whole state, but forest tent caterpillars have a stronger presence in southern Rhode Island, according to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.