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Toxic fungus best weapon against gypsy moth

moth August 24, 1996
Web posted at: 12:20 a.m. EDT

From Correspondent Christine Negroni

MILVILLE, New Jersey (CNN) -- Scientists searching for a weapon against the destructive gypsy moth caterpillar may have found the answer. A toxic fungus may help save those trees that had become the moth's meal.

The fungus was introduced in the United States 80 years ago as a method of eliminating gypsy moth caterpillars. But only recently did entomologists notice it was actually working.

Gertrude Howgate, who owns property in New Jersey, says she has been battling the gypsy moth for a long time.

"They ate every leaf, every tree on my property. Two acres -- they stripped right to the stem," she said.


But now, though there are a few eggs attached to the trunks, most of the gypsy moths are gone. The trees in Howgate's yard are verdant, and scientists and forestry officials are crediting a form of toxic fungus with the turnaround.

"The gypsy moth -- it's going to be this year at the lowest level it's been since 1968," said Gerry Hertel of the U.S. Forest Service.

Buoyed by the success, the agency is investing time and money to turn nature's bounty into a lethal weapon -- one that could be used in the 16 states where gypsy moths are a serious problem.

Although they're delighted with the results, gypsy moth experts aren't sure how the enthomofaga myahmega fungus became so widespread and established in New Jersey and other Northeast states.

But for the most part, it is seen as a welcome natural predator to an insect that has been nothing but trouble to property owners by defoliating millions of acres of trees annually.


Property owner Floyd Burt describes his experience trying to rid his yard of the moth. (255K AIFF or WAV sound) icon

Frustrated and impatient, property owners may be unwilling to wait for a developed fungus to work. Caterpillar corpses are testimony to its near-100 percent effectiveness, but the bugs don't die until after they've decimated the trees.

"The gypsy moth is a big nuisance. They (property owners) want it gone, now," said Hertel.


For that reason, attacks on gypsy moths also include aerial spraying of another biological pesticide, a virus that gives young caterpillars a killer stomachache.

"It has to be eaten by the caterpillar, and maybe it won't work," said entomologist Joseph Zoltowski.

While officials announce decreased gypsy moth damage in 1996, they hope property owners will believe in the power of a fungus they cannot see to eliminate the very visible threat of next year's infestation.


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