I went back to St Marks in Burlington last week to re-photograph the once defoliated, now green trees and get a couple detailed photos of the egg masses with the fuzz removed – interestingly someone had already scraped away most of the fuzz on the egg masses. As I was taking the photos an older fellow came up to me and told me about growing up in Burlington in the 50s when there was another Lymantria dispar (now the silky moth) outbreak. His father had encouraged him to gather up the caterpillars, douse them in gasoline and light them on fire. He also told me that there was about an outbreak back in the 50s and the city of Burlington paid to spray trees to control the moths. I was curious for details on past outbreaks so I did a search through the Burlington Free Press Archives and found some fascinating details.

Previous outbreaks

Lymantria dispar outbreaks are visually stunning, with some trees being totally denuded and appearing to suddenly die late-June, early-July. While the outbreaks are cyclical, boom years can be separated by decades. The last outbreak in Burlington was 30 years ago (you can find all the Burlington Free Press articles from 1894 to 2021 – 17 in total – on Lymantria dispar here). Three decades is eons in our collective memory, and so after the gap in time most people had forgotten that trees tend to rebound rather quickly after the the caterpillars pupate and stop feeding (adults do not feed). So the appearance of thousands and thousands of moths this summer was a worrying and shocking surprise to many of us.

Lymantria dispar moth destruction on white and red oaks and Norway maple (taken on June 27, 2021 St Marks Church, Burlington)
The same oaks and Norway maple that were devasted by Lymantria dispar moths earlier this summer and after the leaves regrew (taken on August 25, 2021)

This worry is palpable in reading old articles on the subject. The term “gypsy moth,” which again is outdated and in the process of being renamed by the Entomological Society of America, appears in articles in the following years:

  • 1894
  • 1921: Impact on xmas trees
  • 1936: CCC work done to prevent future infestations
  • 1957: DDT use reduces pop’n of natural predators
  • 1963: Front page article about outbreak
  • 1966: Studies being conducted on islands in Lake Champlain for controls
  • 1969: Plea to hunters to help stop spread of the moths
  • 1970: Plea to vacationers to not transport the moths
  • 1972
  • 1978
  • 1981: Satirical article “Gypsy Moth Killer Confesses Obsession,” another article on the 40,000 affected acres the previous year
  • 1982: Written in may, a reflection on the huge outbreak in the previous year and perhaps the most vitriolic of all the articles
  • 1987: Article on how the moth is being studied
  • 1988: From AP, article about study on future impact of the moth
  • 1993: Article on natural controls on the moths (a fungal pathogen and a virus)
  • 2021

Most of these articles appear on the heels of an outbreak (in bold above). Some of the articles are from the AP, so aren’t necessarily tied to a local outbreak, but rather relating a more regional perspective on the topic.

From an 1894 article, the first Burlington Free Press article that mentions the moths. The moths were first introduced to the US by Massachusetts amateur entomologist Étienne Léopold Trouvelot in 1869. His attempts to crossbreed with silk moths failed and a storm destroyed his breeding cages and sent the caterpillars out into our New England forests

Over the 140 years of articles, there’s a shift. It begins with worry, a fear that the outbreaks to the south would soon spread north to Vermont. There’s a lot of uncertainty, missing details, and even a bit of misinformation in these early reports as naturalists were only just beginning to understand the problem and ecology of the insect.

The articles then appear to be exploratory, describing studies being conducted on potential controls for the moths or describing natural predators/controls. There’s a matter-of-fact, economical way of describing the moths and their impact – both ecological and financial. This gives way to a pop-culture disdain for the moths. The 1981 satirical article is an interview with Roderick Crawford, an obsessed caterpillar killer. There’s this exchange with a member of the audience and Roderick:

“Mr. Crawford, when your wife saw you killing caterpillars, why didn’t she leave you?”

“She threatened to several times, but I think she was afraid to. I was in such a state that I told her if she left I would do to her what I was doing to the caterpillars.”

After a rough decade in the 80s, there’s an exasperation, but almost a release. In a 1993 article from the AP, reflecting back on the 1992 outbreak, Larry Rhoads, entomologist with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources said: “Nothing will eradicate the gypsy moth. It’s not biologically feasible. You’re doomed to fail.” He had already lived through several outbreaks in the 1980s. The outbreaks are described in stark terms. In 1982, BFP published this on the caterpillars: “more than 13 million acres worth of trees in 11 Northeastern states were raped by the legions of 2-inch caterpillars.”

While I’m oversimplifying our collective relationship with these moths, I still found it fascinating to track the shift in how one newspaper – and likely most Burlingtonians source of information on the moths for the 20th century – covered Lymantria dispar.

Alright – I think we can leave the moths there for now and move onto other topics!

Digging all this natural history content?

Become a monthly supporter on Patreon.

Be sure to check the archives for back issues.
And shoot me an email if you have an idea for a future blog post, newsletter issue, or podcast episode!

Subscribe to the Newsletter