Caterpillar that can kill is spreading over Britain
By DAVID DERBYSHIRE
Last updated at 12:03 14 June 2007
Nests of oak processionary caterpillars have been spotted in dozens of trees in London
over the last few weeks.
The discoveries have prompted fears that the species - normally found in the Mediterranean - has settled in the UK for good.
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The creatures first appeared in
Britain last summer after they
were brought into the country on
trees imported from Holland.
They are covered in 63,000
poisonous hairs which can trigger
allergic reactions and
conjunctivitis if they are touched. Even if they
are not handled, the bristles can
break off and be carried in the air. If
inhaled, they can trigger asthma.
In extreme cases, they can even
trigger anaphylactic shock.
The caterpillars normally live in
southern and central Europe, but have been moving north in recent
years as the climate has warmed.
In Europe, they cause a few
deaths every year through severe
allergic reactions to the toxin they
However, doctors pointed out the
creatures are probably no more
dangerous than wasps or bees.
Staff at Kew Gardens in West
London found and destroyed three
nests in their grounds last year.
This year, the number shot up to
Kew’s head of trees, Tony
Kirkham, said: "We are dealing with
them as we find them, but I think
this is now something we will have
to be doing every year.
way they will be eradicated is if we
have a really cold, wet winter."
Kew insisted that the caterpillars
pose no threat to visitors or
staff, but it is urging gardeners to
report any more sightings to local
environmental health officers.
Although spraying kills them, the
caterpillars release thousands of
hairs as they fall to the ground.
The presence of these hairs - and
the fact that the toxin in them can
survive for up to a year - means
the risks remain even after the
caterpillars are destroyed.
Last year, officials at Kew were
forced to use hairspray to stick the
nests together before burning
them with blowtorches.
The caterpillars hatch in April and
do not pupate until June or early
They have a grey body and
dark head with a dark stripe
running down the middle of the back
and a whitish line on each side.
They are covered in clumps of
long white hairs along the length of
the body, and shorter poisonous
Oak processionary caterpillars
are so called because they emerge
in single file in long lines at night to
feed off leaves.
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