Flamboyant Caterpillar Ravaging Island Trees

A leafless flamboyant tree on St. Croix. (Susan Ellis photo)
A leafless flamboyant tree on St. Croix. (Susan Ellis photo)

While Virgin Islands vegetation is growing back in many shades of green, the usually vibrant flamboyant, or Royal Poinciana, is not wearing the normal flaming flowers of orange, yellow and red. The trees are brown and leafless due to an infestation of a small, brownish caterpillar.

Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Arthur C. Petersen, Jr., remembers a similar invasion a decade or so ago, when the so-called flamboyant caterpillar chewed the foliage off most of the territory’s flamboyant trees. The hillsides of St. Thomas, which he said had been planted with copious amounts of flamboyant seeds, were bare and brown.

The worms look like flamboyant seeds and hide in the leaf litter under the trees, Petersen said. Around dusk, they travel up the trees “like cows to pasture” and feast overnight on leaves, he said.

So-called Flamboyant looper, within the family Lepidoptera Noctvidae. (Photo provided by Dr. Amy J. Dreves, new pest management specialist at UVI Extension Service)
So-called Flamboyant looper, within the family Lepidoptera Noctvidae. (Photo provided by Dr. Amy J. Dreves, new pest management specialist at UVI Extension Service)

“It doesn’t kill the trees, it just makes them look ugly,” he added.

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One way to combat the caterpillars, Petersen said, is to rake up the leaf debris under the trees. The worms are then exposed to natural predators such as birds and centipedes.

Amy Dreves, manager of the pest safety education program at the University of Virgin Islands Extension Service, has had a lot of calls about the caterpillars. They were first seen in the territory in January and now are infesting many trees.

“The best thing to know is new growth is already coming back,” she said.

Although the inch long, fuzzy worm looks like a looper, Dreves thinks it is a member of the armyworm family – Lepidottera noctuid. She is incubating pupae in order to better identify it.

“I don’t want to say it until I rear it,” she said. “My best guess? I’m going to call it a flamboyant looper.”

The tiny catcaterpillar is not much longer than a human fingernail, but in mass, they can denude the territory's flamboyant trees. (Kelsey Nowakowski photo)
The tiny catcaterpillar is not much longer than a human fingernail, but in mass, they can denude the territory’s flamboyant trees. (Kelsey Nowakowski photo)

In 2014, an infestation of the royal Poinciana caterpillars – Melipotis acontioides – was reported in the Turks and Caicos Weekly News. According to Department of Agriculture research, outbreaks occur in Florida and the United States every 10 or 15 years, but no records were found of previous outbreaks in Turks and Caicos. The article reported trees may die and recommended insecticides and wrapping the tree trunk with cloth or burlap to trap the caterpillars. The cloth should be changed daily and larvae disposed of in soapy water.

Dreves said the caterpillars have probably always been in the territory, but may have been blown as a result of the hurricanes. Pest explosions often occur after storms because natural enemies have been displaced or there has been a change in conditions, she said. The Jack Spaniard wasp may be one of the looper’s predator and they have been scarce since the September hurricanes.

Noctuidae, commonly known as owlet moths, cutworms or armyworms, can be found worldwide except in the Antarctic. The owlet moths account for more than 25 percent of all butterflies and moths with more than 35,000 species worldwide and 3,000 in North America, according to the website thoughtco.com. Like other butterflies and moths, they play a role in plant pollination.

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