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Creepy caterpillars come around once a year

After about 30 days the oak leafroller larvae will build a cocoon and emerge as a moth in May.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

After about 30 days the oak leafroller larvae will build a cocoon and emerge as a moth in May.

Just when you thought it was safe to go outside ...

The caterpillars. They're everywhere.

They rappel from trees on a thread like Angelina Jolie in a spy thriller. They hover in front of your face and cling on impact. They ride stealth on your shoulder and show up hours later eating your lapel.

"They're disgusting," said Becky Tickel, a paralegal who ate lunch outside at St. Petersburg's Primi Urban Cafe Tuesday. "You kind of have to dodge them as you're walking."

Thousands of the little green critters have blanketed the Tampa Bay area this spring, crawling on downtown St. Petersburg walls, hanging from Safety Harbor oaks, loitering in Tampa back yards.

What are they?

Oak leafrollers to be technical, but you may call them inchworms. They appear every year and feed on new vegetation right after the (also pleasant) release of pollen.

"Some people will claim that they're seeing more and it could be because of the cold that we had," said Cindy Peacock, a horticulturist at the University of Florida's Pinellas County Extension. "The trees are just happy. We're getting a lot of new growth and happy leaves are coming out and that might make more caterpillars."

Moths lay eggs in tree branches every May. The eggs cook until March when the creepers release in a baby boom and start snacking. They'll eat your garden, yes, but they're mostly interested in leaves, especially oak.

Boyd Hill Nature Preserve in St. Petersburg is a virtual Golden Corral.

"In our oak trees, there's so many of them their poop sounds like rain falling," said assistant park supervisor Sydney Lemieux. Caterpillar poop is called frass, and yes, it could wind up in your hair if you walk under a bustling oak.

Still, it's not the worst year ever, said Boyd Hill foreman Howard Saytor.

"I've been here all my life," he said. "Certain years it's really bad. I've seen them to the point where they defoliate trees."

The scene on the sidewalks of downtown St. Petersburg amounts to carnage — worm bodies squashed into the pavement and sizzled dry onto street lamps. A group of women smoking outside a municipal building Tuesday compared it to an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

Outdoor diners keep a close watch on their salads.

"I did pick one off of one man's hat the other day," said Jamie Robinson, a server at the Garden, where employees sweep for bugs every day. "I said, 'You've got a little guy on you.' "

Chris Johnson, who works at Burrito Boarder, thinks they're — shudder — cute.

"They are our green little friends. We should treat them with love and respect. They get up on their little hind legs and look around. They're not hurting anyone."

Love or hate them, the caterpillars remain an important part of the ecosystem. In about 30 days, they will start transforming into moths. Then, they'll continue to get on your nerves by huddling around porch lights.

But don't worry.

The birds are in line for that buffet.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

Creepy caterpillars come around once a year 04/13/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 14, 2010 11:06am]
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