Volume 45 Number 2 Summer 1998



 (Above) Typical webs of fall webworms on pecan.
Leaf-Eating Caterpillars Are Destructive and Annoying Pests in Alabama's Urban Forest

 (L to R) Walnut caterpillar, spiny oakworm, yellownecked caterpillar, and greenstriped mapleworm.

Lacy L. Hyche

Leaf-feeding insects are among the most common, destructive, and often downright annoying pests encountered on shade, ornamental, and urban landscape trees.Many species are ravenous feeders capable of completely defoliating trees, thus destroying their ornamental and environmental values in the landscape. Loss of foliage also retards tree growth, and may cause dieback in crowns and, in some cases, tree mortality.

AAES research on tree insects has identified many leaf feeders associated with Alabama trees. Among the most destructive and annoying of these are caterpillars, the larvae of moths and butterflies. Typically, populations of these leaf feeders vary over time, both in species and in number of insects present. Commonly, a species will be abundant for one, two, or three seasons, then scarce for several seasons. Several species, however, are more common than others, and infestations tend to occur more frequently. The following presents some of the more common species found on trees in the urban forest landscape.

Yellownecked caterpillar, colony of young larvae (red color phase).


The yellownecked caterpillar occurs commonly on oaks but will feed on several trees and shrubs, including apple, basswood, birch, honeylocust, and maple. The larvae typically feed in colonies, defoliating one branch, then moving as a group to another. Young larvae are basically red with yellow or white stripes; the full-grown larva is about two inches long, black with similar longitudinal stripes, and has a yellow collar or "neck" behind the head. Caterpillars are normally present from late July or early August until mid-October. There is only one generation per year.

Walnut caterpillar, group of young larvae (red-purple color phase).

The walnut caterpillar is closely related to the yellownecked caterpillar. Its favorite food trees are pecan, hickory, walnut, and butternut. Walnut caterpillars, like the yellownecked, feed in colonies, moving from branch to branch. Young larvae are red to purplish with white longitudinal stripes; fully grown larva is black, 2-2 1/4 inches long, and covered with long white hairs. Two caterpillar broods occur each year, one in late May and June, and one in late summer (mid-July through September).

Greenstriped mapleworm; early stage larvae


The greenstriped mapleworm feeds primarily on maple and boxelder. Early and mid-stage caterpillars feed gregariously; older larvae tend to separate. Young larvae are yellowish cream with black heads and faint greenish stripes along the body. The full-grown caterpillar is about 1 3/4 inches long. The head is cherry red, and the body is yellow-green with dark green longitudinal stripes. There are two distinctive long, black spines behind the head and rows of shorter black spines along the body. Two broods usually occur each year, one during May-June and another during August-September.

Spiny oakworm; early stage larvae

 The spiny oakworm is a close relative of the greenstriped mapleworm, and bears the pair of long black spines typical of this group of caterpillars. Oaks, as the name implies, are the primary food trees. Larvae feed in a group until about half grown, then tend to separate to feed. Like the preceding caterpillars, their color changes as larvae develop. Young caterpillars are creamy white to green with black heads; the fully grown larva is brownish orange, sometimes tinged with pink, and about two inches long. There is one brood each year. Caterpillars usually begin to appear in the last half of July or early August, and may be present until early October. 



The fall webworm is one of the most common leaf feeders. Larvae feed gregariously and are responsible for the conspicuous silken webs common on host trees in summer and fall. Larvae and webs are often found on pecan, persimmon, sweetgum, willow, and mulberry. In most years, populations are relatively low, but periodically, the fall webworm occurs in “outbreak” numbers, as it did in some areas of Alabama in 1997. During outbreaks, webs become numerous, and are found on a wide variety of hosts, including the above trees and cherry (both native and introduced), sourwood, redbud, sycamore, blackgum, and cypress. Larval activity actually begins in late April or early May; however, webs are most common in late summer and fall, thus the common name.

Full-grown black race fall webworm larvae


There are two races, or forms, of fall webworm larvae orange and black. Orange race larvae have orange heads and orange tubercles on the body; black race larvae have black heads and tubercles. Full-grown larvae of both races are about one inch long and thickly clothed with whitish hairs.

Hyche is an Associate Professor of Entomology.


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