SIKESTON -- Currently Missouri isn't known for its overabundance of gypsy moths, and if the Missouri Department of Agriculture has anything to say about it, that's a reputation they'd like to keep for a while.
"It's just knocking on our door," said Rocky Hayes, urban forester for the Southeast Missouri Regional Conservation Department. "The outlook doesn't look good. They were introduced in the 1700s in the northeastern states, and they just keep marching west."
The gypsy moth concerns agriculture and conservation officials because of its ability to defoliate and weaken trees, which can lead to soil erosion and reduced food and cover for wildlife.
The Missouri Department of Agriculture reports more than 11,000 traps are set up on trees throughout the state of Missouri, and even though the majority of the insects have been found in heavily populated areas, the entire state is at-risk for housing the insects.
"Every county in Missouri has these traps," Hayes said. "We don't want to miss any county."
Hayes said just about all states bordering Missouri have a gypsy moth population so it's just a matter of time before the insects creep on to Missouri soil.
The amount of forest coverage a county has determines the number of traps set, Hayes said. "For example, counties with little forest coverage, like Pemiscot and Dunklin, which have five percent of the county covered by trees aren't going to have as many traps as say a county like Reynolds, which is 95 percent forest," he said.
Most of the traps are put where people frequent such as parks and conservation areas, Hayes said. Branson is a hot spot for the insects as well as St. Louis and the Six Flags Theme Park area.
According to the Missouri Department of Agriculture, last year, six moths were taken from four traps, down from 12 moths found in 2000. Four moths were captured in St. Louis County, while one moth was captured in each of Stone and Callaway Counties.
Gypsy moth eggs are most likely spread by vehicle travel. The female gypsy moth has a tremendous reproductive capability and will attach egg masses containing 100 to 1,000 eggs to almost anything. Lawn chairs, barbecue grills, house trailers, campers and cars are likely harbors for the eggs, which can be transported hundreds of miles by unsuspecting travelers.
The gypsy moth likes to feed on hardwood trees, like the hickory or oak, Hayes informed. It only does its damage as a caterpillar because it's at a stage where it eats or defoliates leaves.
Hayes explained: "If it's a healthy tree, it probably doesn't die the first year. But after two, three or four years it continues to defoliate. Without the leaves, the tree can't really make food for itself so it dies."
Generally, only a trained eye can recognize the gypsy moth, but Hayes said if someone notices a large number of caterpillars on a hardwood tree, they should collect them, bag them up and take the sample to their local conservation department. In their caterpillar stage, gypsy moths can be identified by prominent blue and red dots along their backs.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time, it's a false alarm," Hayes said. "But you can never be sure."
Traps contain a chemical that mimics the pheromones (chemical substance) naturally released by female gypsy moths. Male moths will follow the scent to find a mate, but will find a sticky trap instead.
According to Hayes, the traps are easy to spot. He described them: "They look like an orange triangular box about one foot high and 4 or 5 inches long. It looks like a little tent hanging on the side of a tree."
One reason the agriculture, conservation and other departments are using trafficking efforts, like the traps, is because once the gypsy moth population moves in, it's virtually here to stay.
"They're a mess to deal with," Hayes said. "So we're going to keep them out if we can."
* Check vehicles, equipment and other belongings for egg masses when returning from out-of-state trips, especially to Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and the northeastern United States, which have gypsy moth infestations.
* Don't tamper with traps you might come across when visiting Missouri's forests, parks or other wooded areas.
* Anyone importing wood or nursery products can help by notifying the state agriculture department so inspectors can monitor moth movement between states.
* Report any evidence of gypsy moth egg masses, pupae or moths to your local conservation office or call the Missouri Department of Agriculture, Plant Industries Division, at (573) 751-5505.
Source: Missouri Department of Agriculture