Real Estate

Real Estate: At my house, it’s man vs. worm

Bagworm larva are typically small and black. (Credit: Creative Commons/Benimoto)
Bagworm larva are typically small and black. (Credit: Creative Commons/Benimoto)

I blamed Hurricane Sandy.

So I couldn’t allow myself to be too upset. Many people lost their homes — or their lives. All I lost was an arborvitae. My once lush green shrub was still standing erect, but it was fried and brown. It looked like a piece of corn that had been dried out for use in a huge Thanksgiving centerpiece. 

My brother-in-law, who’s worked his entire life in irrigation, later corrected my assessment of the dead shrub. During one of our random walks around my property, I had pointed to the shriveled arborvitae as a victim of the superstorm’s salty air. Unconvinced, Billy snapped what looked like a piece of Crispix cereal off the plant. He then ripped it open to reveal a sticky, silky substance that pulled apart like taffy. He wiped his hands off on his shorts. Sandy had nothing to do with this, he said.

I had worms.

Bagworms to be exact, which aren’t really worms but a type of moth. We looked around. It was an infestation. Bagworms were everywhere. And not only on the dead tree — which hosted hundreds. Crispix were also hanging from neighboring arborvitae. Those shrubs, too, were turning brown as the bagworms sucked at them for nutrients.

I couldn’t bear to think about the cost to replace my arborvitae wall, should all 10 trees die. As a homeowner, I’ve found spending money simply to replace stuff to be especially brutal. Instead of investing in something new, you’re basically out a grand or two with nothing to show for it.

In their larval stage, the moths disguise their cocoons using bits of plant material from the same shrubs they feed on. (Credit: Michael White)
In their larval stage, the moths disguise their cocoons using bits of plant material from the same shrubs they feed on. (Credit: Michael White)

Which is why I’m chronicling my more than two-year battle with bagworms here. These things are everywhere on Long Island. I now notice their destructive work almost daily in my travels, no matter the season. I imagine that, in many cases, property owners don’t realize they have worms. And if they do, maybe they’re blaming the harsh winter, or Hurricane Arthur.

It’s been a bit of a grind trying to eradicate “my” bagworms, but I haven’t seen many of late — at least not live ones. What’s better, my shrubs are sprouting new, green growth to replace damaged foliage. (Though the one I mentioned earlier died.) Having now come back from the depths of ornamental plant despair, here’s my advice for others:

1. Don’t neglect your arborvitae, juniper or Cypress trees, among others. These pricey plants should carry warnings similar to those on infant playthings: Do not leave unattended. I’m not saying you have to set up a baby monitor, but never let years, or even just a season, go by without inspecting them. If you spot a few bagworms, you can simply pull them off and dispose of them before they multiply. I pulled one off my Hinoki Cypress last year and never saw another.

2. If you have an infestation, get to picking. Even if the bagworms are in the thousands, you’ll still have to pick these creatures off your trees. Spraying them dead (see below) won’t cause them to drop to the floor. Leaving dead bags will lead to confusion down the road as to which are dead and which are new. And new ones will be coming. If you have kids, you might even consider recruiting them to help pick. Bribe them with a nickel a bag (not a nickel bag). It’ll add up and the worms can’t hurt the kids.

3. Put your kids in the house for this next one. You’ll be using chemicals. I didn’t have to call a professional in. Billy spoke to an arborist at his company, who said I should use Sevin-brand insecticide from any local store. But I’d have to wait. To make matters even more complicated, spraying bagworms is only effective around May to early June here. So months later, I purchased some Sevin, diluted it in water and got to spraying. A few days later I went out and snapped off hundreds of dead bags that varied in size and placed them in a large, empty chlorine tablet bucket, which I then sealed and tossed out with the garbage. I wasn’t taking chances.

Of course, just a week or two later, healthy bags were back. So I sprayed again. And I continued to pick. I picked throughout the rest of the year. This past spring, there were bags, again, though not too many. I sprayed, again, this time using a hand-spray bottle of Sevin and not the type you mix with water or attach to a hose. I hit some hotspots and have been periodically pulling off dead bags since.

I know I’ll be criticized by some readers for using spray chemicals, but the organic, stinky stuff is more for prevention than it is for handling these pests, if it even works. In the end, I had to choose what was worse for the environment: dead trees or a bit of Carbaryl, the active ingredient in Sevin. I saved the trees, and with them, my privacy and my money. So that’s my story. There were times when I thought I was fighting a losing battle, but it looks as if I won.

As George W. Bush likes to say: Mission accomplished. Hopefully there aren’t any insurgents to worry about.

Michael White, editorMichael White is the editor of The Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at [email protected], or 631-354-8045.