It is a sad that the first reference that comes to my mind when the word “Gypsy” pops up is that dismal Cher song “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves.” I might need to remind you that the chorus went something like “…gypsies, tramps, and thieves that’s what the people of the town would call us….” and end with “but every night all the men would come around and lay their money down.” Ooh, what those steamy suggestive words wrought in the juvenile mind! Anyway, as much as I hate to admit it, this is the perfect lyric to accompany my discussion of Gypsy Moths. These moths are, you see, truly scandalous immigrants who move in and strip our forests of their leaves and turn our yards into bordellos. They give real Gypsies a bad name.
We can blame a Frenchman (ah, those French) named E. Leopold Trouvelot for bringing the initial bunch of Gypsies to Medford, Mass. as part of a silk moth experiment in the 1860’s. It was his desire to improve the breeding stock of native silk-producing moths by crossing them with European Gypsy moths. In 1869 an accidental release (due to storm damage I believe) introduced the creatures to the wild American landscape.
Although Trouvelot’s experiment was a failure, his moths successfully took hold in the hardwood forests of the eastern United States. The increasing automobile travel of the 1920’s spread the population westward and they are still on the move. Cyclic infestations have since resulted in the defoliation of an estimated 1 million acres per year. Perhaps we should call these things French Folly Moths – even though that would be unfair, but who cares. The French are not always fair (I am, of course, speaking of those European French and not my Quebecois cousins).
Last week, the North Country around our Dollar Lake cottage was full of Gypsy Moth activity. This was not a heavy infestation year – around West Branch anyway – so there weren’t a lot of caterpillars in evidence back in June and early July. The emerging adult moths (see above) were everywhere, however. In fact, the male moths were flitting about and “laying their money down” with reckless abandon.
Male Gypsy Moths are the first to emerge from their pupae. Equipped with huge feathery antennae (see here, above, and here) and strong flight muscles, they immediately begin seeking out the females. Unlike most moths they are day fliers. The females emit a stream of seductive perfume into the air called pheromone. This “come to momma” scent will travel for miles on the wings of a light breeze but it works best within a range of a few hundred feet. The males fly an erratic (erotic?) zig-zag pattern as they attempt to intercept a few molecules of this pheromone plume. Once detected, they will follow the scent “upstream” to the source and complete the deal.
Female Gypsy Moths (see beginning photo) look quite different from the brown athletic males. They are much larger and fatter, and possess white wings peppered with dark spots. Oddly enough, they cannot fly. Upon emergence, they simply crawl a few feet away from the pupal skin and begin sending out chemical invitations.
Soon after mating, the rotund female plasters an oval egg mass onto the surface of the tree or building where she emerged. Each mass, containing around 1,000 eggs, is covered over with a weather-resistant matte of fine orange body hairs. The hairs also act as a predator deterrent since they can be nettle-like in their effect.
As I write this blog, there is not an adult Gypsy moth to be seen from my porch. Last week there were dozens of them treading the breeze like so many salmon running upstream. All the adults die after their brief flight period and the local flight time has passed. Like their namesakes, they come and go. Only the egg masses now remain to overwinter. I will attempt to destroy as many of these as I can by next spring (while uttering blasphemous French phrases) but I know it is a fruitless endeavor. These French Follies will not easily retreat or surrender.