I first noticed the tell-tale tents of eastern tent caterpillars (Malacosoma americanum) in the nature area near our house about a week ago. Sure enough, when I did my post-freeze assessment of the backyard, a tiny nest was clinging to one of the apple trees — although it looked like no one was home.
Eastern tent caterpillars have been regular visitors to our yard in the spring. Usually I wait until dusk when all the caterpillars have returned to their nest and then snip the branch with the nest off and dispose of it by dousing with kerosene and lighting it on fire. (Yes, that is the recommended method.)
Eastern tent caterpillars are a nuisance, although if left unchecked they can defoliate a tree. They are not to be confused with forest tent caterpillars (Malacosoma disstria), which are sometimes called armyworms. Unlike eastern tent caterpillars, forest tent caterpillars do not build a tentlike nest. They also have different food preferences. While eastern tent caterpillars feed on apple, cherry and plum trees, forest tent caterpillars like aspen, birch, basswood and oak.
I did not remove the nest from my tree yet, because it’s possible the freezes we have had the past few nights did the caterpillars in for me. If not, I’ll be snipping the tent soon.