Oak Processionary Moths A Threat to the Olympics?

Unwelcome Guests Without Tickets Set To Spoil Olympics in London

It’s not often that an ecological news story breaches the sports section of the Sunday papers but recently a small caterpillar from Holland did just that. Indeed, it's not often anything from Holland makes the sport section outside of football but now there is a genuine concern that the oak processionary moth (OPM) could spoil the Olympics this summer. And no, they don’t work at Heathrow as immigration officials either.

The actual moths themselves aren’t the real reason for alarm but the caterpillars that proceed them in their life cycle and the 63,000 hairs they are covered in. These hairs are particularly toxic and cause a host of allergic reactions and the problem is made worse because as the hairs can detach from the host becoming airborne,  so a person doesn’t need to actually come in to contact with the caterpillar itself. Reactions range from asthma attacks, skin and throat rashes, running eyes, dizziness and vomiting.

What’s this got to do with the Olympics?

The OPM has actually only resided in Britain since 2006 after they hitched a lift from a batch of oak trees imported from Holland. Since their arrival they have spread as far north as Sheffield but they are largely focused in the south east of England and London, hence the concern for athletes and spectators for Olympic events. Currently the problem is under control but there are concerns that as a result of the milder winters over the last few years populations of OPM will be worse this year and take up residence in and around Olympic event sites despite not even having tickets.

However, people are questioning the real impact the problem will have on the Olympics, not least because of the seasonal timing of the OPM life cycle. The problem caterpillars emerge from their communal nests around May or June, devouring the leaves of their host Oak tree. They pupate in early July before completing their transformation to moths before the end of the month so the poisonous hairs of the caterpillar should be all but gone by the time of the first kick of the women's football on the 25th of July 2012. The adult moths then lay their eggs during the summer for the process to begin again the next year.

Therefore, many argue the real concern should be for the trees over the long term, not a sports event over two weeks in one year. Ecologists fear that the OPM could be prevalent around the south east of England within five years and that is troubling for those with direct experience of these pests. Tony Kirkham, head of the arboretum at Kew Gardens says,

“You can slow them down but we will never find them all. They will always keep increasing... We use spray to keep them at bay but even the nest removals at Kew don't totally control oak processionary moths”.

The Forestry Commission and the Royal Botanic Gardens have collaborated with local authorities to try and wipe out nest in London but enough have survived to continue to pose a problem for Oak trees in Britain. One hope is that by connecting the problem to an Olympic hungry public, awareness of the OPM problem will be raised over the long term after the torch has been passed from London to Rio.

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