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Dallas residents are dealing with a nuisance. Well, many — a caterpillar outbreak

A cluster of hackberry leafrollers swarms a citronella candle on a Dallas resident's patio and blankets the outdoor furniture in webbing.
Rachel Lindley/KERA News
A cluster of hackberry leafrollers swarms a citronella candle on a Dallas resident's patio and blankets the outdoor furniture in webbing.

DALLAS — Dallas-Fort Worth residents are caught in the web of an outbreak. Caterpillars are feasting on foliage and leaving yards covered in silk.

"I thought it was kind of neat and fun at first," Fort Worth resident Steven Horvath says.

The tiny, green caterpillars are cankerworms and hackberry leafrollers. They're about half an inch to an inch long and have segmented bodies.

A hackberry leafroller covers a leaf in webbing as a caterpillar outbreak impacts the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
/ Rachel Osier Lindley/KERA News
/
Rachel Lindley/KERA News
A hackberry leafroller covers a leaf in webbing as a caterpillar outbreak impacts the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Horvath first spotted them a few weeks ago. They dangled from his backdoor frame and the trees in his backyard. Then they devoured the leaves and blanketed his patio furniture and his shed with layers of shimmering web. And then they moved inside.

"My son said that he found one in his lunchbox," Horvath says. "You know, my wife doesn't like them in the house. You have to be careful when you're cooking that they're not dropping down from the ceiling into your food."

These caterpillars normally come out in the spring. They're part of the region's fauna. They aren't usually so abundant or widespread, however. North Texas last witnessed an infestation in 2015.

Wizzie Brown, a pest expert with Texas A&M, says recent heavy rains after a dry summer may have sent the signal for these springtime visitors to hatch again. "Weather has been crazy this year," Brown says. "And I think that environmental conditions have just made it where they're hatching out now... and trying to get their life cycle in before winter comes."

While the outbreak is a nuisance to Dallas-Fort Worth residents who are left to clean up the webbing that's covered their trees, backyards and outdoor decorations, Brown says people don't need to worry about long-term damage to their trees.

"Most of the reports I've been getting is that they are feeding on pecan trees and hackberry trees, both of which are going to drop their leaves in the coming months anyway," Brown says.

Some people are buying pesticides to try to combat the infestation. But Horvath, who teaches middle school science, decided against it. "The research I did said any kind of pesticides you're going to use would harm a bunch of the other beneficial insects, and it wouldn't even be effective 'cause there are so many," says Horvath.

Cankerworms and hackberry leafrollers have covered trees in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in webbing.
/ Rachel Osier Lindley/KERA News
/
Rachel Lindley/KERA News
Cankerworms and hackberry leafrollers have covered trees in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in webbing.

Dallas resident Dale Summerall says it's the abundance that's unsettling.

"It's like the trees are covered with snow, but it's a web and then you see the worms all coming down, it's something like out of Avatar," Summerall says.

While many residents think the cleanup is for the birds, Brown says it really is. They're a feast for birds now migrating through Texas.

Copyright 2022 KERA

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Jacob Wells