4 June 2007
BRUSSELS (AP) – A Belgian army contingent joined the fight Monday against a mass outbreak of irksome caterpillars in oak trees which can give people skin rash and breathing problems.
Two dozen soldiers will join firefighters in northern Belgium where the so-called oak procession caterpillars have spread to record numbers because of warmer-than-usual weather, creating prime living conditions for the insect.
The hairs on the back of the caterpillars can cause anything from mild itching to painful irritations or dermatitis and asthma attacks.
In the countryside in the provinces of eastern Limburg and central Flemish Brabant, workers have been using gas flames to burn and kill the caterpillars from the oak trees, the only tree they inhabit.
Yet they keep coming back.
Officials say that because of a genetic mutation that occurred some 100 years ago, the caterpillars are immune to anti-pest spays usually favoured by authorities in such cases.
First sighted in 1758 in the Netherlands, the caterpillars have slowly spread southwards, feeding on oak leaves and nothing else.
They are called procession caterpillars because they crawl in long lines, one after another, up the oaks. Their hairs are extremely thin and can be carried in the air by the slightest gust of wind. The caterpillars can also shoot their hairs off into the wind if they feel threatened.
[Copyright AP 2007]
Subject: Belgian news