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Squiggle and squish

Okay, so you know intellectually that the furry little buggers won't hurt you, or your kids, or your dog, or even your favorite tree. You know rationally that they are going to go away soon. But still . . .

"If you step outside on your day off and one of them falls in your coffee cup, your next stop is the Home Depot. You want to annihilate the little suckers," declares George Lemos, who lives in Shore Acres. "It's just human nature."

Sure enough. The insecticide aisle at the St. Petersburg Home Depot store is swamped these days as hundreds upon hundreds of the caterpillar weary have turned murderous in their revenge. Home Depot has helpfully pasted cartoon pictures of caterpillars to the shelves to direct customers to their weapons of choice.

Theresa Miller holds a coveted bottle of poison. Two to three more weeks is just too long to wait out this freak plague of caterpillars that has dropped onto Pinellas County. "I'm sick of them now," she said.

So are a lot of people. "Every third call we've gotten this week is about the caterpillars," said Opal Schallmo, the county's urban horticulturist. She said one woman called and said she was lying outside in the sun _ the next thing she knew she was wearing a fur coat of them.

Rose Borchardt, a letter carrier for the post office who has a route in the Old Northeast, counted 32 on a co-worker the other day. Letter carriers say they learned the hard way the proper protocol for caterpillar removal. You flick, not pick. To pick them is to squish them, which leaves a disgusting slime on your clothes.

There is some fear that people are overreacting.

"There's a tendency to want to get them and get them good," warned Mary Hoppe, a spokeswoman for the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. There is fear that indiscriminate spraying just because you are frustrated may carry danger. Hoppe said they are always concerned about poisons in the water runoff.

Others worry that blanketing your home and yard with insecticide could backfire. "You're endangering your own health more than the caterpillars," said Schallmo, the urban horticulturist.

Apparently there is no definitive body of knowledge on the Malacosoma disstria (forest tent caterpillars). This is what is known:

_ Where do they come from? They come from eggs that were laid in oak trees. They love those trees as well as gum trees.

_ Why are they on your front door? Some say they are trying to get back to the trees to make their cocoons. Others say they might be attracted to the temperature variation at the door where outside meets inside.

_ How much longer? Schallmo, the urban horticulturist, says at least two more weeks. Bad news for those who heard two more weeks two weeks ago. But there are different life cycles. Still, some people around St. Petersburg are beginning to see the beginning of the end.

_ What's next? Remember grade school? Remember watching caterpillars make a cocoon and then turn into a moth? That's what's next. Schallmo says the moths are not harmful. They will simply return to the trees and lay eggs _ for next year.

_ Why this year? No one seems to know. Some old-timers say this is they worst they have ever seen. Typically, these types of outbreaks run in two- to three-year cycles. Optimists are saying this should be the last year.

The triggering factor of a cycle is equally unknown. The prevailing theory is that the severity of this year's plague has to do with an upset in the balance of nature _ perhaps the lack of winter is making life sweet for the caterpillar and not so great for their natural predators, such as wasps that eat the eggs. Therefore, the caterpillars remain unchecked.

So here we are. And, faced with carrying a few to work each day in your hair or onto your plate at a barbecue, the people have stepped into the fray. And it is the zeal in which some are bringing to battle that makes some environmentalists a little nervous.

Yet still, even the most ardent of naturalists is not denying a high creep factor in watching the walls of your house move or listening to loud munching coming from your trees. They would prefer you just hose down your walls a couple of times a day with water. But if you simply must buy insecticide, these are the ones considered effective:

Thurocide, which is thought to be the safest for other life forms, is a bacteria that makes the caterpillars unable to eat so they starve to death. It must be sprayed directly on the trees, not on your house, porch or sidewalks because it won't work there, said Schallmo.

Probably the next best remedy is Sevin Dust or Sevin Liquid, she said. They are stomach poisons, and like thurocide, must be applied to the trees.

The other two best-sellers are Diazinon and Malathion. Both are contact poisons designed for other bugs. Schallmo says they may or may not work and carry more danger if used incorrectly. Diazinon could also leave a stain if applied to a stucco or concrete house.

Guntis Barenis, a St. Petersburg urban forester, said he too is concerned as people reach their tolerance limit. He said he has even heard from people who want to cut down their oak trees. He said he reminded them that oak trees add value to their property and that the trees were probably there before they were.

"We're just saying be patient," Schallmo said, "We know it's terrible. We're all in the same boat. Just share your war stories and wait it out."