Why You Need to Know about Processionary Caterpillars

It’s Spring, at last (at least it was a few days ago – it’s raining again today and feeling more like Autumn again, but hey ho.) At this time of year everything comes alive and the ground starts crawling with critters. Most of these are harmless, friendly even, but then there are a few others we have to watch out for. One of the most prolific of these is the pine processionary caterpillar which, after having spent months in their fluffy-looking nests high up in the pine trees, make their way down to earth for the final stage of their life cycle (as caterpillars) where they then burrow into the ground in order to pupate, hatching a short time later as the Pine Processionary Moth (Thaumetopoea Pityocampa).

A silk cocoon hanging on the tips of a pine tree

Silk Cocoon of the Pine Processionary Caterpillar

img_1760

The Distinctive Pine Processionary Caterpillar

I first saw these on a walk with DS and DD last year. At the time we didn’t know what they were but luckily I knew better than to touch an unidentified furry crawly and rightly too, as it turns out. Because as harmless as they appear – how much damage can a small fluffy looking caterpillar do? – they are in fact quite toxic. Not so bad to healthy humans;  we can expect a rash, which can be pretty nasty – the picture on Google images don’t look all that appealing but, risk of anaphylactic shock aside, it’s usually a localised reaction somewhere on the body and eventually clears up.  As with all things of this nature it’s best to keep your kids from picking them up or rolling around on the ground anywhere where they’re likely to be found. For dogs (and sometimes cats – although cats apparently keep their distance more often than not) they can be fatal, as a friend living in Spain, so a few weeks ahead in the life-cycle, discovered just a few weeks earlier. Her dogs made it, luckily, but it was a close shave and one she could have avoided if she’d known more about the dangers beforehand.

Personally, while I’m usually quite nervous of pests (and general pestilence) in this instance I’m mostly just relieved they’re not spiders – which is what I thought they were when I first saw the giant cocoons on the tips of the tree branches. But then I don’t have dogs. For any doggy owners, there’s some really useful information on this website and a very thorough write up of a doggy encounter with them on this other blog, ouiinfrance.com. In short, to protect your animals you need to prevent them from having any contact, not only with the caterpillars themselves but also with the spines, which are the cause of the problems. If they have an encounter with any caterpillars the advice is to get them to the emergency vet, so if this is you – go now. Go!!

The question I have though is how to get rid of them and what is being done about it because they really are prolific and I can see that if no action is taken this problem is only going to get worse. In future we may end up in closer proximity to them – while they’re around now there aren’t any particularly close by so unless my cats wander off into the woods, which are about 1/4 of a mile up the road, they’re unlikely to come into direct contact with them.

While these are common across much of Western Europe, different countries have different policies, as you’d expect. In France there’s a directive which places the onus on the land owner but requires action at the local level to be enforced. All good with the obvious problem that unless it’s enforced – and I’d say from the number of nests around here that it isn’t –  it’s unlikely to make the least bit of difference. Plus there’s so much land and so many owners, many of whom are scattered over the entirety of the globe, which means and not all land has an obvious owner, or at least not an owner on hand to actively manage it. Since the pesticides that were used to eradicate them are now banned (good) the best methods involve removing the nests and burning them (not good since fires can easily get out of hand and the act of removing the branches/nest can spread the dangerous hairs) or traps, which are the most ecological solution. The basic principle of the trap exploits a weakness in the caterpillars programming. You see these creatures, once they leave the nest, head to tail, seem to have no compulsion to go around anything, so as soon as they hit the barrier they just go round and round. Or rather, the first one goes round and round and the rest just follow! This discovery was thanks to a French naturalist, Jean Henri Fabre, who wrote a book entitled The Life of the Caterpillar (which is available to read online) about them. One day while studying them he managed to coerce them into forming a loop, so they were all equally following and leading, walking in circle. To his surprise them they continued this way for the best part of four days. Fast forward to today and four days is ample time for a trap to be set up and emptied. Game on.

The traps are designed so that a small tube leads out of the barrier into a collection bag, which you can then dispose of safely. There’s an official product, called Eco Piège, which you can pay upwards of 35 euros for (yeah, right), or you can go DIY.  Some cheap and cheerful DIY barrier ideas include using pipe lagging, some pipe and a bin bag, as in the picture below, posted by Linda Garnett to Facebook.

CaterpillarTraps_LindaGarnett

DIY Processionary Caterpillar Trap using Pipe Lagging

Another simple idea used recycled water bottles – but of course now I can’t find the photograph to share. Also I’ve seen pictures of clear plastic gaffer-taped to the trunk of the tree, kind of like a large buster collar (the kind you put on your dog or cat to stop them scratching their stitches out). However you do it, the best approach seems to be one that involves funneling them into a container that you can easily seal in order to limit your contact with them.

As an alternative to catching the live caterpillars and then having to dispose of them, Farber recommends checking the tips of the trees for eggs and removing the branch tips before they hatch, so no cocoons or dangerous fibres to have to deal with. That might be a worthwhile approach if you’ve only got a few trees in a fairly small area and can easily keep a close eye on them but on the scale of the problem as it seems to be around here, that would be a lot of work!

So there you have it. You have been warned! Personally I hope I never have to put up with these on my doorstep but, if I do, at least I’ll have some ideas about how to get rid of them. And in the meantime I’ll be keeping myself, my pets and my kids well out of their way!

28/04/18 Update – I managed to get an up-close cocoon shot so have added it above. 

Advertisements

Good Neighbours 

It’s a long weekend here in France, as with much of Europe (I think), made longer for the us by the fact that DD came back from school on Friday with suspected conjunctivitis (joy of joys) so we’ve been busying ourselves in the garden. Today we worked on our new compositing solution, which I plan to blog about once we’ve finished setting it up, and also caught up with our lovely neighbours Patrick and Claudine, who took us around their veggie patch and orchard and gave us some of the many lettuces they’ve started in their cold frame, as they’re now ready to plant out and they have loads of them. These are the sucrine variety, or Little Gem en anglais, apparently native to this part of the world and a really good grower in this climate.

They have a wonderful garden which they work hard at maintaining. They know what they’re doing and have been giving us some good advice with our little patch, which is more than welcome. While we’ve gardened before and grown veg the climate is very different. They’re keen for us to succeed, which is lovely, and happy to also share their produce as well as their knowledge! Rhubarb is one of my favourite fruits (edible plants, actually) so when Claudine showed me their well-established patch I was more than happy to take up her offer of a large bunch to take home.

Claudine and I were also able to clear up the main difference between jam and compote, so now I know (it’s do with the amount of sugar used and the length of time you plan to store it.) Her recommendation for rhubarb was very definitely rhubarb tart.

Now to find some sugar-free rhubarb recipes, which will be new territory as my preferred dishes are usually fairly sugar-dense, like stewed rhubarb crumble and custard. Can I find a passable rhubarb tart recipe that will be up to Claudine’s standards, I wonder?

Nature’s Gifts: The Sap is Rising

One of the many things I love about this place is the abundance of wild food. When we arrived the trees were loaded with fruits and nuts – figs, pomegranates, walnuts, almonds. Locals in the know were busy helping themselves, taking baskets along on their walks so they could collect whatever they found.

Then there was the apple and pear harvest, where locals harvested fruit from their own orchards (or individual trees) and sent the fruit off to a local pressing co-operative, returning with the freshest of apple juice, perfect for quenching the thirst as is or for leaving bottled to allow natural fermentation to occur, resulting in a very tasty cider later in the year.

Then there are the nuts and seeds to be foraged from woodland: mushrooms, which I don’t know enough about to pick, and sweet chestnuts, which we didn’t have time to go out and collect but were lucky enough to be given some by a friend along with information on the best sources locally, noted for this year.

Then everything slowed down, dying back over winter, but now spring is here nature is starting to provide once again. The first hint of this came when a week ago a friend posted on Facebook that the sap was rising, making it the perfect time to collect birch sap, something I’d wanted to do for a while, and asking if anyone wanted to visit her in the mountains and spend a few days working the trees there. It turned out James had been thinking about doing this too, quite independently, but as we were busy getting ready for our move a couple of days away wasn’t very practical. We decided instead to find out what to do and take ourselves off on a walk from the gite to find any local trees and have a go at tapping the sap from those. After an evening spent Googling and watching various videos on YouTube we were ready to go.

We were keen to avoid an extra shopping trip so decided to try a simple and low-cost method that uses a knife to pierce the bark and an old plastic water bottle suspended around the tree to collect the sap. The videos made it look so easy but of course it was a little more difficult in practice. The first hurdle though was finding a birch tree. On our exploratory walk we walked a couple of miles and found just two trees! The walk itself was pretty eventful, as DD practically ran up the hill, no less than 200 metre as good as straight up, but given our mission was to find birch trees it wasn’t a great success. Accessing the two trees was pretty tricky too as they were quite a way from the track, which meant scrambling through brambles and bushes – not popular with a now shattered DD and not easy with DD on my back. We made it to the tree and James managed to rig up a fairly simple bottle  in the short time we had before the two smalls got really restless and we had to go back.

The next morning James went back to check the bottle and see how we’d done. There was about 200ml – not bad. We agreed that it would be good to leave the bottle there longer and also to try and refine our method, plus I wanted to try it for myself, which meant skipping the walk and heading straight for the trees, so we would have time to set things up before the two little ones got restless again. We waited until after lunch then headed out. It was a beautiful day and nice to be out in the fresh air. I sat and supervised the smalls while James popped up to the tree to set up his kit, then we swapped over. DS entertained himself playing with sticks and rocks while DD ran about taking photos and pretending to be various animals (tigers, primarily). I nearly took my eye out walking through a bramble that was so thin and straggley it was barely visible, but apart from that it was pretty uneventful and straightforward.

Returning the next day we both had pretty much the same amount – 200ml – so no great shakes there, but what we had tasted delicious. It didn’t last long, unfortunately, but was a good experience and something we hope to repeat next year when we have more time and also, hopefully, have more trees to work with. The two we found possibly weren’t the best – it’s very dry over here and they were on the hillside, quite a distance from a source of water – so between now and next year we can keep our eyes peeled when we’re out for some better locations. We may also try to refine our gear, opting for an alternative method. James is keen to try a method that involves drilling a hole then plugging it with a dowel and I’d like to try the method advocated by Fergus the Forager on his website, which collects smaller quantities off individual branches rather than tapping the trunk.  If we can harvest more sap then there’s the potential we can boil it down to make syrup, much like maple syrup but more labour-intensive as the ratios for birch syrup are 100:1 rather than the 40:1 for maple. I’d love to try it. Since we are trying (mostly successfully) to avoid sugar the idea of a homemade natural sweetener is very appealing! I used to love bacon and maple pancakes, but we forego them nowadays. With homemade syrup it would be a treat we could all look forward to. Heck, I’m already looking forward to it just thinking about it!

I have some photos somewhere, so if I can just find my camera in amongst all the boxes in here I’ll share them in a new post.


Share you wild food stories! What wild foods do you have on your doorstep? Do you have any good recipes?