Here's What's Eating the Leaves on These Maple Trees

Here's What's Eating the Leaves on These Maple Trees

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A little caterpillar that arrived this spring could take a big chunk of the sweetness out of maple sugaring season.

These tent caterpillars are eating the leaves right off of the trees. That spells big trouble for maple syrup producers. Trees should be building up sugar for harvest next year. But without leaves, they produce a lot less.

“There's nothing we can do about next year's sugar crop right now and the effect of the caterpillars,” maple sugar farmer Bryan Thompson said.

Douglas Thompson was one of the first to discover the infestation. When he went out to cut firewood this spring, he saw these caterpillars all over, and they eventually got to most of his best producing trees.

“Basically it looked almost like fur on the tree," Douglas Thompson said. "It was a whole group of caterpillars clustered together. And I knew immediately what it was.”

As bad as expectations are for maple syrup production in spring, it could get even worse. The infestation could return. If it does that for two successive years, maple stands already hard hit could be wiped right out.

Here is why some farmers and experts think that could happen. Branches on farms hard hit are now covered with forest tent caterpillar clusters. If they hatch in the spring, they'll get right to munching on leaves.

“If the trees are 75 percent defoliated like this year after year, they're going to die,” Bryan Thompson said.

Cornell Cooperative Extension experts said the fact that the trees have not grown new leaves is what poses the greatest peril. In past infestations, the trees were able to put out new ones. This year's infestation appears limited to St. Lawrence, Clinton and Lewis counties. However, both the extension and state are ramping up their investigation.

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