Tent caterpillars in May (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)
Tent caterpillars in May (photo by Marcy Cunkelman)

Coming soon to a cherry tree near you… tent worms!

Their real name is the Eastern Tent Caterpillar (Malacosoma americanum) but I’ve called them “tent worms” ever since a memorable spring in the late 1960’s when they overran the neighborhood.  They were everywhere.  We couldn’t walk without stepping on them.  Ewwwww!

Eastern tent caterpillars are actually moths that eat plants in the Rosaceae family including apples, chokecherries and black cherries.  Most people don’t notice them until they build silken tents in the trees.

Tent worms are among the most social of all caterpillars.  Their mother lays a cluster of 200-300 eggs on a cherry tree (for instance) in spring or early summer. The caterpillars develop inside the eggs but they don’t hatch until the following spring.  Just before the tree leafs out, the tiny caterpillars emerge from the eggs and work together to spin a tent to keep them moist and safe.

Every day the caterpillars come out of their tent to eat the leaves. As they walk, they lay scent trails to follow back to their tent at the end of the day.  As the caterpillars grow they make their tents larger to bury their waste and provide a place to hide between eating excursions.

When they’re ready to become moths, the party breaks up and each caterpillar goes off on its own to weave a cocoon.

This is what they look like as moths. Rather unremarkable. They have a 2.2 to 4.4-inch wingspan.

Eastern tent caterpillar moth, Malacosoma americanum (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Eastern tent caterpillar moth, Malacosoma americanum (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I’m not fond of tent worms but they’re a favorite food of black-billed and yellow-billed cuckoos who arrive on migration just in time to eat them. Bring on the cuckoos!


(tent photo by Marcy Cunkelman, moth photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

3 thoughts on “Tents

  1. Man, this photo took me back almost 30 years to growing up on the family Farm. My cousin and I used to collect these worms and make ‘pets’ out of them. 🙂 There were always so many of them. They were such a gentle creature, as I recall. Our Mothers would get so incredibly mad and make us take them back. Of course, we couldn’t get them back into the tent – so would just leave them at the base of the tree. This also reminded me of the bats!! We loved the bats. I had one fly into my house here in Lawrenceville about 7 years ago. It took me ages to catch it and let it back outside. Another gentle creature. I am so glad Spring is finally here…

  2. So, that’s what I have in my little crab apple tree. I’ll hang out my “Welcome Cuckoos” sign today!

  3. OH! I absolutely do remember them in the 60’s! And you could not go anywhere without stepping on them! No matter how hard you tried to avoid them. I remember neighbors burning the “tents” in their trees. I do remember how their little legs tickled when we would play with them. They were actually very cute when they would pick up their little heads and look at you.

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