The invasion of creepy, crawly caterpillars

Every few years the north state endures an abundance of caterpillars, especially around oak trees. Today I finally looked up their name: Malacosoma californicum, commonly known as the tent caterpillar. 

Here in the country, I don't mind snakes. And I'm intrigued by mountain lions, coyotes and even bear.

But these fuzzy caterpillars are driving me crazy.

Thousands of these creatures now swarm our property, driveway, trees, house and Bruce's shop. I've learned to not touch anything without looking first, lest I squish some wiggly thing.

In fact, so many tent caterpillars are simultaneously chomping away on our oaks that sometimes, when I stand very still, I can actually hear falling frass, which sounds a bit like softly falling rain.

That's another word I learned today: frass, commonly known as insect poop.

These blasted caterpillars and cocoons have no boundaries. Some even crept into our house and garage. 

But the most dramatic show of all appeared on Bruce's truck tires, which hadn't moved in a few weeks (gas prices being what they are).


See for yourself. Come on, admit it. Disgusting. It gets worse (hard to believe, I know.) When Bruce took his truck to town today hordes of caterpillars remained stuck to the tires, waving goodbye as Bruce drove away. When he returned a few hours later, almost all the caterpillars were gone (except the survivors nestled deepest into the tread).

Meanwhile, thick clumps of cocoons line the underside of everything: eaves, porch steps, railings, my garden cart, along our rock pillars, even curled up inside peppermint leaves.

More mint with your tea?

I've tried blasting great masses of the cocoons with a jet stream of water, which mostly doesn't budge them. How could this be? Didn't miners use water to carve hillsides? 

My very worst caterpillar encounter happened a few weeks ago during a cooking class for teenagers. I'd gone outside to cut herbs. After I returned to the house I kept feeling something tickle the center of my back. I finally reached around and smacked the spot that felt weird. Splat.

I don't care that I've read about tent caterpillars not biting. They chomp through oak leaves. And this one bit me. I felt a sting. A dead caterpillar dropped to the floor. (My back had a sore welt for a week.)

"Ooh, you have blood all over the back of your shirt!" one girl said.

Gross-o-rama. The smashed caterpillar stain - a sort of light Fudgesicle hue - never did wash out, even with spot remover. 

I think back to a few months ago when I first noticed a flurry of dusty-brown moths around our porch lights each night. Come morning they'd be stuck to exterior walls, wings folded quietly.

Not hurting a soul. So I thought.

Tent moths.


At the time, little did I realize that each little moth would eventually lay hundreds of eggs that would later hatch into Western tent caterpillars, which would poop so loudly that you could actually hear it hit the ground. And they'd strip leaves from trees. And maybe one would even drop down my shirt. 

They'd form cocoons, emerge as moths, lay eggs and start the whole maddening cycle all over again. 

I should have dealt with the moths then, when I had the chance. 

Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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7 Responses

  1. GrammaLyn says:

    We had a similar "invasion" about twenty years ago. We were hosing them off the house hourlyto little or no avail. They would get stuck in the cracks of the deck and it was sooo nasty. I love your word "frass". Never heard that before, but I know you can hear them chomping and pooping. You saw how far away the oak trees are from our house, yet they are managing to worm (ha ha) their way up the canyon, across the yard and march up to our house. It is a long, long journey for them and I'm impressed that they are able to make it. Nature is amazing, isn't it? But they are still DIS-gusting!

  2. Sandy T. says:

    Doni- I know it isn't funny, but your article gave me the best laugh that I've had in weeks. I know, I have a weird sense of humor. I know I would hate to have all those creepy-crawlies around my house. Good luck, Sandy

  3. Budd Hodges says:

    My dear Doni , while outside today I spotted one of the dreaded oak loving tent catterpillers. Fear entered my body, after reading your story a couple of days ago. Could they be invading the city like Igo? I checked the oaks around my house but so far they're clean of these little worm morphing moths.

    and no, you can't send me yours.

    I enjoyed your article! :>)

  4. lexi says:

    Really people. Their just catrepillers, i understand getting upset that they are invading you house. but discusting? they're cute in their own way, and everyone pooooppsss! 😛

  5. neica says:

    i live in redding,ca . and we have thousands of the crawling creatures on our sidewalks.patios,driveways and are qickly eating us out of house and plant, and garden. what do we do to be rid of the crawlys. before were forced to move out our home.

  6. Denise says:

    I live in Kansas just west of Kansas City, Kansas. It is mid July and we too are being

    attacked by these nasty critters. Only ours are dead. Just laying all over the ground.

    Am wondering why.

    I can't remember ever seeing bunches of them dead on the ground.

    Anyone else seeing this?

  7. toni says:

    They are gross and we hate them. You can’t walk to the car or stay in the yard for a few seconds before you are covered in them. Most times you don’t realize and bring them back in the house. They create webs on everything from our cars to our garbage cans. There are 1000’s on my home and one side of the house literally looks like it is moving. It’s embarrassing and our home is an eyesore. I have tried everything to get rid of them if the nests are in my trees I am screwed since my trees are over 100 feet tall and there is no way for me to destroy the nests or even know which trees they are in.

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