Portland’s beloved Candelabra Tree in Deering Oaks, one of the most recognized and largest trees in the state, suffered last summer from browntail moths. Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald

At first glance, the browntail moth, which has a lustrous white appearance, does not look like much of a threat.

As with many things, looks can be deceiving.

The problem with the invasive species is twofold: In its caterpillar stage, the bugs are voracious, stripping trees by the thousands while their tiny, barbed hairs carry toxins that “can cause skin rashes, breathing problems” and more for up to three years, according to Allison Kanoti, state entomologist and director of the Forest Health & Monitoring Division of the Maine Forest Service.

The moths, first detected in North America in a Boston suburb in 1897, are becoming an increasing danger in Maine as their numbers swell year after year.

State Rep. Allison Hepler, a Woolwich Democrat, has a bill this session that would add another two entomologist positions to the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, and create a new $150,000 fund for municipalities and nonprofits to tap for programs aimed at controlling the moths.

Browntail moths cluster last summer under a street lamp near the Winthrop Commerce Center. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

“This bill provides a ray of hope,” Karla Black, deputy executive director of the Maine Woodland Owners, told the the Legislature’s Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry this week.


Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, said the threat to the state’s forests is increasing and staffing must follow suit.

“We need to plan and be prepared” for infestations from the moths and other invasive species that pose dangers to the woods that provide critical recreational and business opportunities in Maine, he said.

Betsy Miller, a tourist who has been coming to Maine for four decades, called in to the legislative hearing to tell lawmakers about her experience with the moths.

Last spring, Miller said, she was exposed to the tiny hairs and “had a really horrible reaction” — a rash that started on her chest and spread over most of her body. A trip to an emergency clinic got her medication that helped clear it up.

Even so, Miller said, if that had happened years ago, before she fell in love with Maine, “I’m pretty sure I would have never come back.”

In written testimony, three Bangor officials told the committee that last year, after a mild winter, many of the caterpillars survived and thrived in the spring.


“The repeated molting of their skins, as they grew, released an untold number of toxic, barbed hairs into the air,” Bangor Public Works Director Aaron Huotari, council Chair Rick Fournier and Assistant City Manager Courtney O’Donnell wrote in written testimony.

“These hairs fell on people visiting our parks, pedestrians traveling for work and fun, vehicle occupants who had their windows down, residents in their own yards and employees who had to be outside to perform the essential functions of their work,” they wrote.

“Local healthcare providers were overwhelmed with requests for assistance with the incessant itching,” the trio added.

They also said they worry about the damage browntail moths are doing to the city’s trees, a source of pride in the community.

“Last year’s infestation resulted in dozens, if not hundreds, of trees in Bangor being completely defoliated,” the three men wrote, particularly oak and fruit trees. Although most of the trees bounced back, they remain “severely stressed” and at grave risk if the bugs return in large numbers.

“This affects residents and visitors of the city as areas of vibrant growth become stark brown treescapes thereby decreasing property value and no longer providing cooling effects, air cleansing, and mind-calming properties,” they wrote. “If the browntail moth infestations aren’t brought under control it will take the City of Bangor’s tree ecosystem years to recover.”


In a 2016 photograph provided by the Maine Forest Service, a browntail moth caterpillar feeds on a leaf. The caterpillars’ hairs can cause a painful rash in humans. Maine Forest Service, via AP

They urged Maine legislators to act.

“If the entire state does not begin to coordinate their efforts to eradicate the browntail moth, the work of one municipality is likely to be quickly undone by infestations working their way in from bordering land,” the Bangor officials wrote.

Hepler told colleagues that clamping down on the moths, which she described as “voracious defoliators of many of our hardwood trees,” would help keep the problem in check.

One key way to do that is to wipe out the caterpillar nests over the winter, usually by snipping them out of the trees.

Hepler said Blue Hill’s local library loans out pruning pole saws so patrons have the needed tool. She also mentioned knowing someone in Bath who uses a shotgun to shoot some of the highest nests from branches.

Hepler’s idea is that municipalities and nonprofits, such as land trusts, can come up with programs suited to their areas with state money and assistance.


State Rep. Thomas Skolfield, a Weld Republican, questioned whether the nearly $400,000 sought by Hepler’s bill is enough to get the job done.

“This may not be the missile that really is effective in moving this forward,” Skolfield said. “I’ve seen sometimes in the past, and don’t get me wrong, where state government has taken a Band-Aid approach, a feel-good approach to say we’re working on the problem, but the problem never really goes away.”

Kanoti said she does not think the measure will “provide an overall substantive reduction in the browntail moth population, but it could make a difference for some towns or other organizations to make that decision to engage” in the effort to control them.

“This is a growing problem that is not going to go away,” Helper said.

The committee plans a work session Tuesday on the bill.

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