Remembering the cankerworm

Remembering the cankerworm

Photo By Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG Via Getty Images

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What’s to miss about the cankerworm, anyhow?

Certainly not their nature, or regard for our personal space. Certainly not the way they’d cling to a dry-cleaned shirt, only to show themselves while we’re giving a big presentation, right there on our shoulder. Or how they’d dance in our hair all day, unbeknownst to us, just to say hello on our pillows that night.

Or how they’d feast on our mighty but tender willow oaks. Or how they’d drop into our picnics, right into the pimento cheese.

You probably have your own cankerworm memories if you lived here pre-2016 or so, back when Charlotte had about 10% fewer people and 980,000% more cankerworms. They were most visible in areas with willow oaks, dogwoods and maples, and in cups of beer and coffee.

What’s happening: Assistant city arborist Laurie Dukes tells me we won. The war lasted nearly a quarter-century, back to 1992. But after years and years of strapping glue-covered bands around tree trunks to catch the wingless female moths before they laid their eggs, it finally worked.


The city banded the same 165 willow oaks each fall to study the population. In spring 2015, they counted about 115,000 on those trees. In spring 2020, they found 117 on the same trees.

Why it matters: They were more than a nuisance. They gave trees fits, especially the 100-year-old willow oaks like those along Queens Road, which worked to grow back the leaves each summer after the cankerworms were gone. It took a lot of energy.

“Older trees do not like to be stressed,” Dukes tells me.

Who does?

The cankerworms were also pretty costly, too. Mary Newsom, the former Observer journalist and UNC Charlotte Urban Institute writer, once wrote that the city spent about $1.9 million when an insect threatens a tree — $11.83 per tree x 160,000 street trees.

Photo: Axios Charlotte archives

How’d we get rid of them? Three forces of nature — human brains, another insect, and weather.

First, the banding. Tanglefoot and plastic. The catch was, you had to have a little foresight: the moths crawl up trees after the first frost to lay their eggs.

So between Thanksgiving each year, we evolved Charlotte humans cut down one type of tree and brought it into our house for decorating, and headed outside and put gluey bands around another type of tree to save it. We can be quite the hypocrites when we play God.

The tree-banding could cause a fight, though. One Reddit user once said that they had a neighbor who’d cut the bands off each time the neighborhood association would put one on, and the following spring there’d still be worms.

How does one confront a anti-bander? Thankfully we don’t have to answer that question anymore. Right?

The second cause for the Great Cankerworm Reduction was a fiery searcher beetle, Calosoma scrutator, which moved into town alongside the millennials in the 2010s and loved to dine on caterpillars.

And the third cause was a few late frosts, which killed the newly hatched caterpillars in the springs of 2018 and 2019.

Regardless the reason, surely news of our victory is cause for great celebration, given our disdain for them.

Yes, but: Let’s consider this whole decade from the perspective of the cankerworm, if you will.

It must’ve been quite a feast up there each spring, thousands of them delighting in the willow oaks and dogwoods. And what joy they must’ve felt, fat and happy and dipping out of the family reunion on silk threads, rappelling toward the earth, where they plan to hang out until fall mating season.

You remember the popping sound? That was them pooping while they dropped. Sorry. But this feels like one of those don’t judge-it-til-you’ve-tried-it things: Have you ever been a caterpillar dropping from the sky for the last time before you become a moth? You might not care about manners either.

Only here, a few feet from the soil, did they encounter us giants. Walking around in our bleached shirts and sugary drinks, telling them how gross they were. I imagine they’d say the same about us.

You know who else we didn’t ask about this? Birds. Bluebirds. Chickadees. Nuthatches. They were on the cankerworm like South End on seltzer.

Alas, we can’t be too hard on ourselves. The cankerworms were a large but disorganized population, a collection of inch-long individuals who rejected a central government or plan to combat us. And so we won, one band at a time.

You may still see one or two this spring, the lonely descendants of the once-mighty date-ruining dynasty. And if you do, just look up and appreciate it.

After all, the trees are less stressed now, lunches are cleaner, afternoon jogs are less disgusting, life is good, and we’re all free of troubles and reasons to complain now that the cankerworm is gone, right?

Maybe there is, after all, something to miss about the cankerworm. The freedom to gripe about the smallest of things.

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