Gardens suffer sticky insect invasion

It looks like the scene from a horror movie... A beautiful, blossoming cherry tree stripped bare and cocooned inside a sticky web by a writhing mass of caterpillars.

It looks like the scene from a horror movie... A beautiful, blossoming cherry tree stripped bare and cocooned inside a sticky web by a writhing mass of caterpillars.

But for two sets of Norfolk neighbours it is all too real as the bottom of their gardens have been turned into no-go areas by a creepy- crawly invasion.

Claire Chapman, 25, and her partner Glenn Robinson, 26, who live in St Leger, Long Stratton, watched the green and black ermine moth caterpillars shear all the foliage from a 30ft leafy flowering cherry in little more than a week.

Worse still, both their tree and a near- identical one belonging to neighbours Jenny Wilby, 24, and Paul Burlingham, 24, is wrapped in gluey sheets of a coarse web that's spreading slowly from the tree.

Miss Chapman said: “People who have seen it say it looks like something from a horror film.

“Three weeks ago the tree was still covered in blooms, but now there appear to be millions of the caterpillars and there is nothing left. They have totally covered the tree in silk and they have eaten every leaf. I have had an insect expert come out and he said he had never seen anything like this in his life.”

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Miss Wilby said: “It is a true horror story. We had some last year, but I have never seen anything like this before.

“They have completely destroyed the tree. They have eaten every leaf, and there is this horrible web all around it and on the fence and the bins.

“My brother lives in the US and he says they have infestations like this out there and often have to cut down the trees afterwards. It's not nice to have that writhing mass at the bottom of your garden.

“It took them a week to demolish a tree, and now it looks like winter with the tree stripped right back.”

There are several hundred species of ermine moths, most of them in the tropics, and the larvae are known for forming communal webs. Some species of the moth are considered minor pests in farming, forestry and horticulture because of infestations.

Last night, Matt Shardlow, conservation director of Buglife, the Invertebrate Conservation Trust, said the huge mass of caterpillars was unusual but not rare.

“It is the sort of thing we do not see every year, but it probably happens somewhere every year,” he said.

“There is a little group of moths called ermine moths and they feed on specific plants. There are two that feed on cherry trees and others that feed on spindle trees, willow, and apple.

“The moth itself is not rare, but it is when they occur in these huge numbers that it becomes quite uncommon.

“Usually you will just get a few at the top of the tree and not notice them, but, if the moths are able to build up their population to a nice size, they will strip the tree completely. The tree will usually recover by the end of the season.”

Mr Shardlow added: “It is an interesting natural phenomenon, but I think it is unrelated to global warming.”