MIDLAND, Texas (Nexstar) – Caterpillars are making themselves at home, and likely, in your home.
One by one, the nimble legs of these moth caterpillars are taking them somewhere. It’s a slow and steady masquerade. But their small migrations can end in tragedy: splattered and squished on the ground.
“We have to step on them,” said Elva Gildon of Midland. “I have to go in the house. So, they’re right there. They’re coming out bad this year.”
Recent rain is letting these caterpillars thrive. The rainfall is spurring large plant growth that makes for a plentiful source of food, not just for caterpillars, but for all insects.
“From time to time, we’ll have huge populations of them, and then there will be several years where you won’t see so many. Then, an explosion,” said Michael Nickell, museum scientist at the Sibley Nature Center in Midland.
That explosion in growth is something Michael says the basin will soon see.
Caterpillars can be referred to as ‘armyworms’ and ‘cutworms.’
“If it looks like a worm but has teeny tiny legs, that’s a caterpillar!” Nickell said.
Caterpillars are not mating because they are immature in their life cycle. They are only looking for food.
The caterpillars in the basin go through six stages of development before they turn into moths in adulthood.
When they develop into moths, these insects play an important role in the ecosystem as an available food source for other animals. Moths also fertilize plants by spreading pollen.
Moths lay their eggs on a food source that caterpillars would need to survive. For example, those eggs might be laid in Bermuda grass.
But then you start seeing caterpillars far away from grass, maybe on the side of a building or on concrete. They do travel. Caterpillars are also attracted to lights. They mostly feed at night. But during the day, you can also find them under soil and leaf litter.
Caterpillars can cause damage to corn and grass crops, especially turf grasses.
“It’s primarily on golf courses, cemeteries, and lawns that you’re probably going to see the biggest amount of damage,” Nickell said.
So, what about using pesticides to kill caterpillars? That’s up to debate.
“Putting insecticide down to kill them in the front yard? I don’t know, I have dogs,” said Elva Gildon. “I can’t put that stuff down.”
“The (pesticide) won’t just go after the bug you’re trying to get rid of,” Nickell said. “They might have an effect on all kinds of things, even the beneficial insects… Even the things trying to eat them.”
Relocating these caterpillars isn’t necessarily a solution either. It could just create problems for other people.
So what’s the safest way to get rid of them?
“Like you said, basically step on them,” said Nickell.
Michael says there isn’t a need for population control unless those caterpillars start harming our food production.
As for the caterpillars out in nature, Michael says there lies a system of checks-and-balances that can keep the population of caterpillars down. That includes wasps and flies that feed on caterpillars. Extremely cold winters can help put the populations back under control, too.
Caterpillars can be expected all summer-long. There will be several generations of caterpillars born. Killing them won’t leave a dent in the population. Whether someone chooses to do so is clearly a personal choice.
The Sibley Nature Center is located at 1307 E Wadley Ave, Midland, TX 79705.