If you’ve been outside in the past few weeks, you’ve seen the webs and the millions of tent caterpillars crawling up — and munching on — tree leaves.
The fuzzy visitors have been seen on every Gulf Island and across much of Vancouver Island, intriguing young children and alarming backyard plant lovers.
And while apple growers on Salt Spring Island say the infestation is significant, they agree it’s too early to say if the year’s apple harvest will be severely affected — and that the island’s diversity in production and terroir, combined with quick action from orchardists, will be what saves the season.
South-ender Harry Burton, at his Apple Luscious operation, said it seemed to be worse mid-island — and grower Bob Weeden said the scene at his north end Whims Farm orchard “looked like a war zone.”
It’s not the first time, nor likely the last, Salt Spring will be beset by caterpillars — not an invasive species, according to experts, but certainly one that can wreak havoc in large numbers.
“In 2012 we cancelled the Apple Festival, they were so bad,” said Burton, who said he’d seen a “medium infestation” at his orchard this year. He said he was largely able to control the caterpillars with the usual lopping-off of nests at branch ends with a pole pruner.
“They tend to go up to the ends of the branches, making it very easy to cut off, if you get them early when they’re concentrating up at the top.”
At this point in the caterpillars’ life cycle, lopping is the preferred method, according to Health Canada, which notes the outbreaks are unlikely to happen on an exact schedule, because of the wide variation in environmental and biological factors that lead to large populations. Salt Spring’s garden and entomology expert Linda Gilkeson actually recommends checking in January for egg masses in branches — an early warning that it might be a caterpillar-filled spring. Gilkeson’s extensive advice can be found at lindagilkeson.ca.
Burning is not recommended for anyone looking to remove tents, particularly during the current weather-triggered ban on most backyard burning. Contravening fire prohibitions can result in fines up to $1,150, according to provincial officials — and well into six and seven figures should the burning result in a wildfire.
Meanwhile, Burton said it remained to be seen how Salt Spring’s apple orchards will weather the storm.
“I’m sort of on top of it here,” said Burton, who was ready to move past the caterpillars and into growing season. “Right now my trees are thinking of apples, they’re not thinking of caterpillars.”