A few weeks ago I was waiting to meet some clients who were just about to take on the rental of a lovely villa that I manage. The cleaners had cleaned, the gardener had gardened, the pisciniste had … done a great job. Everything was perfect, except for that disastrous moment when I looked up and spotted about 30 caterpillar nests in the pine tree by the pool house!
The nests look like tufts of candy floss and are home to hundreds of hairy caterpillars, known as ‘Processionary Caterpillars’ (or Chenilles Processionaires in french). They come out of their nests at night to feed - and then when they are mature, and the weather is warm enough, they descend to the ground and ‘process’ in a single line, nose to tail, in search of a suitable place to burrow into the ground and pupate; emerging as Moths later in the year ready to lay their eggs in the pine trees and start the cycle all over again.
At first glance these lines of caterpillars marching around the garden can look quite funny - but they are extremely dangerous and a real problem here in the South of France. Apart from the fact that they often destroy their ‘host’ pine trees, the main problem is that their hairs are poisonous and can cause severe allergic reactions (or worse) in humans - and animals. I won’t go into details but a google search on the subject will show you all that you need to know.
My clients were just there to pick up the keys that day - and were planning to move in with their 4 dogs later in the week. Disaster!
I knew the regular gardener wouldn’t be keen if I asked him to remove the nests so I called up a specialist company who said they were rushed off their feet so couldn’t come for 10 days and they would be charging 275€. I didn’t think the owner of the villa would be hugely impressed by this outlay so carried on with my research and discovered that for around 50€ you could buy a trap to put around the trunk of the tree which would capture the creatures on their way down. The perfect solution - if any of the garden centres/DIY shops had them in stock - which they didn’t.
I couldn’t help having a mini rant at the woman on the phone when she informed me that yes, they had had 10 in stock but one client had just taken the final 3. Just 10? When I finally paused for breath she told me that there was one very economical solution - Tits. Apparently these little birds love nothing more than snacking on the contents of a juicy caterpillar nest and are pretty much the only natural predator for them. Cue another melt-down from me - it is Spring, there is an abnormally high infestation of processional caterpillars in the pine trees this year, the shops have ordered insufficient stocks of traps and now it was being suggested to me that I install nesting boxes in trees. I know very little about birds but could hazard a guess that luring the right birds into a new ‘des-res’ on the pine tree was likely to take weeks, rather than days.
The end of this sorry tale is that I ended up paying for a company to come and destroy the nests. I have also installed traps around the pine trees in my own garden, fabricated by a local company who goes by the name of La Mésange Verte (the Green tit)!
And one even more important lesson I have learned is to be very careful when searching for pictures to go with my blogs – searching Google for ‘tits’ was not a good idea!