DARMSTADT, Germany — Things are getting hairy in the 233rd Base Support Battalion and residents are itching for a solution.
The cause? A fuzzy caterpillar with a penchant for losing its rash-causing locks.
The oak processionary caterpillar has taken up residence in trees at Darmstadt, Langen and Babenhausen military communities. And it’s prime shedding season for the insect, which is bad news for humans.
The caterpillar’s hair is loaded with poisons that have caused a rash of allergic reactions in the area, said Capt. Kari Bruley, the 233rd BSB’s community health nurse.
So far, more than 50 people have reported allergic reactions at local health clinics, Bruley said, but there may be more cases since people can soothe the rashes with over-the-counter lotions.
Nevertheless, German contractors are using their best tools to tame the tiny tresses: hairspray, industrial vacuum cleaners, fire and ice.
First, workers find caterpillar nests and apply a generous dose of hairspray, said Tomas Vollmar from Base Operation Services. That keeps those toxic, flyaway hairs in place long enough for contractors to suck the little beasts into a vacuum cleaner, Vollmar said.
Once the vacuum is full, the caterpillars are put on ice so they don’t file away, like they are wont to do, in a procession.
It’s all perfectly safe, Vollmar said.
“Doing it this way means that no pesticides are used,” Vollmar said. “It’s the safest way.”
Once the company has a few drums full of caterpillars, they heat them up to 203 degrees Fahrenheit to kill the pests and make the hairs inactive.
The contractors were sucking up the pests in Darmstadt on Tuesday, and Vollmar said they’d continue the extermination in affected communities until July, when the shedding season ends.
Meanwhile, Bruley said, there’s no cause for alarm unless people’s rashes don’t go away.
But people can take precautions to avoid getting the itch in the first place, she said. The oak tree nests look like flat web sacks along the tree bark. In some places, mounds of the insects are visible.
The little worms may look cute and fuzzy, but parents need to keep kids away from them and everyone should definitely keep their clothes on.
“I think the most important thing for people to keep in mind is that you can control exposure to some point,” Bruley said. “Prevent overexposure to caterpillar hair by staying away from nests in oak trees and wearing protective clothing. … The more clothing you have on, the better.”
Airborne hairs can be a hazard, too, but residents can prevent exposure by closing their windows, especially when the caterpillar cleanup is under way.