by Larry Williams, UF/IFAS Extension Agent
Fall webworms are normally observed during late summer and fall when people otice the unsightly whitish or light gray webs in certain trees. Webworms enclose leaves and ends of branches with silken webbing. The worms (caterpillars) are found in this protective webbing consuming leaves. Although they can defoliate branches on which they are feeding, very little to no permanent damage is done. It’s more of an aesthetic problem.
The adult is a moth. They overwinter as pupae in soil or leaf litter. This native insect of North America is known to feed on over 85 tree species. But in the Southeastern United States, they are more commonly found on pecan, hickory, common persimmon, sweet gum, black walnut and bald cypress.
What they are eating (tree leaves) is a temporary part of the plant. Leaves on host trees emerge in spring, grow through summer and then fall away in mid fall or early winter. These caterpillars are not feeding on or damaging a permanent part of the plant.
Webworms feed on trees in nature, along roadsides, in wooded areas and in pecan orchards and landscapes. If you tagged or labelled some of the infested trees and then visited these trees in spring, you’d find new leaves with no damage.
Some people overreact and prune out infested limbs. Left alone, these limbs would still be a part of the tree, eventually producing new leaves. Some people attempt to burn the webbing, with caterpillars inside, possibly damaging healthy branches, twigs and buds. These “control” efforts can do more damage to the tree than webworms could ever do.
Natural predators and parasites help control webworms, including birds, predatory stinkbugs and parasitic wasps. Insecticides may negatively interfere with these predators and parasites. Plus, it can be difficult and dangerous to apply insecticides overhead. And, the webbing is difficult to penetrate with water or sprays. In most cases, it’s best to let these caterpillars run their course. Besides, they cause no lasting damage for your tree.
The final plant clinic of the year will be held Friday, October 14 from 10 am to 1 pm in Fort Walton Beach at the Okaloosa County Extension building, 127 W. Hollywood Blvd. The plant clinic provides a place and time for people to bring in samples of plants for diagnosis including weeds for identification. Bring a fresh sample of the weed, plant, insect, etc., that you’d like diagnosed to the clinic. This may include a plant stem with several leaves, a 4-inch square of grass with roots attached, etc. You also may bring a sample of soil of pH testing.