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first person

Illustration by Adam De Souza

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I am a cold-blooded killer. A murderer. And I use my bare hands. Or my gloved hands. And sticks and stones. And sometimes my shoes. Seriously.

I have killed thousands in the past month alone and will kill thousands more before the summer is done.

Call me the Caterpillar Killer. Sounds impressive, right?

Usually, I’m an insect-friendly kinda gal. There’s often a spider that lives in my bathroom. I named him George. It’s hard to tell if it’s the same one each time so I just keep the name for continuity’s sake. But I’m not sure everyone in my house agrees we should let George take up residence. However, I will take him outside if he breaks the rules and strays out of bounds.

But all bets are off with the caterpillars. I. Am. Ruthless. I am waging my own war on the gypsy moth caterpillars that are devouring the leaves on the trees at my parents’ property just north of Toronto. Two baby apple trees have been denuded. Two large apple trees are almost bare, a beech and another tree are infested.

If they weren’t devouring the trees, I’d likely leave the caterpillars alone. They’re sort of cute, with big bulging eyes and a fuzzy body. But they literally fall from the trees in the wind. They are all over the lawn, the walkway, clogging up the pool.

The wild life I find in my own back yard

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I have read all the latest online posts about how to deal with this intrusive, invasive species. I know their life cycle. I know what I have to do next to try – likely in vain – to keep their numbers down. Oh, have I tried. And I’ll keep trying.

It started with me shaking branches (with a long pole from the pool) to loosen a caterpillar’s grip on the thin twigs. They fall off pretty easily. Then you squish them with your shoe.

Then I tried blasting them off the tree with a jetstream of water from the hose.

Then I learned that putting a band of lard (not as easy to find for cheap during a pandemic-driven bakery-fuelled bonanza) around the tree stopped them from climbing over the lard and back into the tree to devour the leaves.

So, I lard up the tree, then shake the branches with a long pole, squishing caterpillars if possible and knocking them off the tree at the same time. Then if I haven’t squished them, they go right back to the tree, like a bee to honey. But they can’t get past the lard. So, they gather in growing numbers just below the band of lard, puzzling how to get beyond it. There you can squish in high quantities with little effort. Squish. Squish. Squish. That’s where the sticks and stones come in handy. They’re kinda gross to squish with liquid oozing or splurting out. You really don’t want that on your hands.

Last year, I proudly planted two little apple trees and a pear tree. They are only about three feet tall. This spring they sprouted lovely bright green leaves, fresh, young, vibrant. I thought all was fine. Then I went to check on them and I was aghast. The two apple trees had NO LEAVES LEFT! I squished every caterpillar I could see. Only five or six on each of them but that was enough to eat all the leaves. Then I greased them up like a turkey dinner. No branch was left ungreased.

But the caterpillars do have some preferences. The pear tree was almost untouched.

Now I’m trying to rehabilitate the poor little apple trees by feeding them compost and ensuring they get enough water. And I squish any caterpillar that gets near them. And I add more grease.

When I saw the start of the devastation on the bigger trees I searched for ways to help them out. The miracle biological BTK insecticide (officially Bacillus thuringiensis) came up again and again. If the caterpillars ingest this natural bacteria they stop eating and die within a few days. But do you think you can find one measly little bottle anywhere so I can spray the trees? Not a chance. It’s sold out anywhere I looked. Anyway, once there are no leaves left there’s no point in spraying. You have to do it just as the leaves come out and the caterpillars start emerging. I guess that will have to be the plan for next spring. If I have any trees left.

The next part of the strategy is continuing caterpillar killing and finding cocoons and squishing them. Any caterpillars that hatch into moths, especially the females, are easy to kill. They have wings but don’t fly. Only the males do. The females are big and white and easy to spot, and if you can reach them you squish them, too. Then you start looking for the pale brown mass of eggs they leave behind. Those you scrape into a bucket of hot soapy water and let ‘em drown. But you have to find them first.

That means looking in every crevice, crack, under all the furniture and deck rails. Any place that you think a moth might find as a great hiding space. They’ll also be all over the tree they’ve infested, light brown blotches, teasing you that they’re too high up for you to do anything about them.

But now that I know what I have to do to keep the trees from getting devoured, at least I’ll have a plan of attack for next spring when this happens all over again. I’m ordering BTK as soon as I can get my hands on some. I’ve got to keep up my reputation as the Caterpillar Killer. The apple trees depend on it.

Gillian Livingston lives in Toronto.

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