The leafy trees that have drawn people to Chicago's North Shore are attracting something else as well - a spiny-haired, spotted deadly moth expected to hatch soon.
Officials and scientists are prepared for this outbreak. They are stocking a virtual welcome wagon of traps and poison to hunt down and kill America's most unwelcome foreigner, the European gypsy moth caterpillar.
The insects annually defoliate hundreds of thousands of acres in the Northeast. They have cost hundreds of millions of dollars to control since 1980 and have caused financial losses in the tourism and forest products industries.
But when the caterpillars break out in Chicago's North Shore suburbs, as they are expected to do this spring the critters create a different sort of complication.
It also becomes a social problem as no one wants to deal with these creepy, crawly things.
That is not surprising, considering the hairy creatures' looks and habits.
Moth infestations are becoming more common in Illinois, and they likely will be a permanent fixture on the scene, experts said. The anticipated outbreak this spring is further evidence of that.
Essentially, the gypsy moth is going to become established and very common among the north and northwest suburbs of Chicago.
Scientists in Illinois began erecting gypsy moth traps in 1971 and caught the first male moths two or three years later. Infestations have been reported almost every year since, with scattered outbreaks occurring throughout Chicago's suburbs. The moths have appeared on the North Shore before, but experts predicted that more trees will be hit than before.
This spring, helicopters will fly over seven areas along the North Shore, from Evanston to Lake Forest and Lake Bluff, a tract in northwestern Lake County and one patch of Palatine, spraying restricted tracts with a microbial insecticide called Bacillus thuringiensis, or BT. This spray won't harm humans or other mammal, nor will it hurt trees or contaminate water. I just kills moths and the Gypsy moth. The infested areas are mainly residential.
A gypsy moth causes damage at only one stage of its life cycle: as a caterpillar. The caterpillar emerges from an egg at the end of April or early May and eats its way into adulthood for about six weeks. The insect favors oak leaves but can stomach virtually any tree leaf, scientists say.
The oak is the European gypsy moth's ice cream!
After six weeks, the caterpillar has had its fill. It lashes itself to a tree by spinning silk threads, and for 11 to 12 days it pupates. When it emerges, beginning in early July, it is a full-grown moth.
The female is pure white with some black markings on her wings. He's just kind of dirty, drab brown."
The female mates once, and then lays a quarter-sized hairy mass containing up to 1,200 eggs. The eggs are laid on trees or objects including cars, campers, dog houses and lawn chairs. People living or camping in infested areas inadvertently help the moth extend its range when they move their trailers and lawn furniture to such places as Chicago.
The male may mate many times and continue searching for females until about mid-August, when both sexes die.
The eggs lie dormant until spring, when they hatch, beginning the moths' life cycle anew. Scientists begin checking for moths at that time, erecting traps baited with pheromones, chemical substances that female moths secrete to attract mates.
The male gypsy moth is the only one that can fly. Once male moths turn up in traps, state and federal officials know they have a potential problem, and they start searching for the population and drawing up spray plans.