Genk experts first in Europe to breed ‘hunters’ of oak processionary caterpillars

Experts at the Provincial Nature Centre in Genk have succeeded in breeding beetles that can control the oak processionary caterpillar without the use of insecticides.

The scientists have bred 125 forest caterpillar hunters, which live for five years and lay eggs each year. Due to human influence on nature, the species had become increasingly rare in Flanders.

They are natural enemies of oak processionary caterpillars, which are considered pests for a variety of reasons. Their hairs cause itching and irritate the eyes and airways of anyone who comes near them. They also damage oak trees and cause problems among pets and livestock. The insects often have a negative effect on recreation, tourism and economic activities.

"We want to be ready for when the caterpillars are present en masse again"

At locations where there is a major issue, the oak processionary is controlled, which currently involves the use of insecticides and the removal of caterpillars using suction. This process is labour-intensive and costly, while insecticides are damaging to biodiversity. The use of forest caterpillar hunters can be a sustainable, ecological and affordable solution. The beetle loves to eat hairy caterpillars, which tend to be avoided by other animals.

“This is a breakthrough in our fight against the oak processionary caterpillar,” said project leader Luc Crevecoeur. “Our approach can not only help reduce the nuisance of these ‘itchy’ caterpillars, but also reduce dependence on harmful pesticides.”

This year, the oak processionary caterpillar isn't causing major problems in the region, as numbers are down due to several wet winters and cooler springs. “But we want to be ready for when the caterpillars are present en masse again,” said Crevecoeur.


#FlandersNewsService | A forest caterpillar hunter © BELGA PHOTO MARC DIRIX

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