Experts plan to release flies to tackle winter moth problem

Hungry Winter Moth caterpillars are taking over parts of Rhode Island.

An invasive species of caterpillars is taking over large swaths of Rhode Island, and the state says if the caterpillars are not stopped, they could cause millions of dollars in damage.

The state Department of Environmental Management has received hundreds of complaints concerning winter moth caterpillars. These caterpillars are originally from Europe.

The caterpillars eat the leaves of several local trees and over time can kill them. So far, they've been a nuisance in local neighborhoods and a problem for fruit farmers.

Bruce Payton, the deputy chief of DEM's Division of Forest Environment, said if the caterpillars aren't kept under control they could cause plenty of damage. On Tuesday, he was in a Smithfield neighborhood where several caterpillars were visibly devouring trees.

Payton says homeowners and farmers should look for a buckshot type holes in the leaves of trees. This is a sign you might have an infestation of winter mother caterpillars.

Over the past three years, the state has used a type of parasitic fly, also from Europe, to control the caterpillars. The fly lays its eggs on the leaves that the caterpillars eat. When the caterpillars eat the eggs, the flies grow inside and kill it when they burst free.

Researchers at University of Rhode Island and the University of Massachusetts in Amherst are releasing the parasitic flies to help control the problem. If you have any questions regarding winter moth caterpillars, you're asked to call DEM's Division of Forestry at 401-222-6800.{}