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Eulogy for Charlotte's Cankerworms

It's a tough week to be a cankerworm in Charlotte. The planes have taken to the air and are dropping a substance that's designed to make a deadly meal for the wormy millions. City officials hope this week’s spraying will vastly thin the ranks of the cankerworms.  They expect the green worms back next year, but in lower numbers.  WFAE's Lisa Miller considers the plight of the cankerworm as the corpses begin to mount.

There’s no love lost over cankerworms in Charlotte.  City Arborist Don McSween is standing opposite his foe, one worm stuck in the tanglewood goo circling a tree trunk. 

Lisa Miller: Do you think this one here, this little green cankerworm, do you think he has a chance of getting up there?
Donald McSween: No, No I don’t.  No it’s stuck on there and hopefully he will die there.  Die, cankerworm, die. [laughs]   

McSween explains his death wish this way:  multiplied by the millions, this little green worm ready to march up the tree and eat its leaves spells the death of a few hundred of Charlotte’s trees every year.  

"We’re not trying to eliminate them," McSween says. "We’re just trying to get their numbers to where they’re not killing our trees." 

This last year, the female cankerworms popped up in such high numbers that the sticky bands meant to keep them in check could not hold any more corpses.  Which was a good thing for those cankerworms following them.  They could step on the carcasses and make it to the tree-tops to lay their eggs, which are hatching now.

It takes five planes, carrying half a million dollars worth of insecticide dropped on 63-thousand acres of the city to get rid of these little green worms. 

Sophia Hollingsworth cheered on the planes yesterday morning.  The night before she was jogging in the Plaza Midwood neighborhood beneath trees strewn with cankerworm newborns.   

"We picked them off and didn’t feel bad at all about mooshing them because we felt it was one less cankerworm," Hollingsworth says. 

LM: It’s probably a faster death than some of them are going through right now. 
SH: And I don’t feel bad about any of them dying. It’s the canopy that Charlotte is known for and the trees are more important than the caterpillars. 
LM: In this week when thousands and thousands of cankerworms are going to be dying, do you have anything nice to say about the cankerworms. 
SH: No, no, hate them.  Hate the green monsters. 

As the insecticide-dropping planes criss-crossed overhead, Jossyln Anthony couldn’t find anything nice to say about cankerworms either.   For her it’s not so much their tree-killing habit that makes her hate them, but how the worms hang from the trees and how the tiny black pellets they excrete accumulate on her car. 

"A cankerworm  to me is very irritating as far as them being in the trees," Anthony says. "I have trees in my front yard and in my backyard and they’re everywhere.  As far as in the mornings when I get in my car, I have spots from the pollen and them being on the car."

LM: If you had to write a eulogy for the cankerworm, what would you say? 
JA:  In memory of the cankerworm.  The most irritating thing out there as far as spring comes around.  That’s it, that’s all I would say. 

If anyone should speak up for the cankerworm, it should be a biologist.  But for Stanley Schneider a professor at U-N-C Charlotte, paying the cankerworm even a tepid compliment doesn’t come easily. 

SS: In the setting of Charlotte where we’ve perhaps eliminated the number of predators that kept it in under control naturally, but in the natural environment by damaging some trees it may allow others to grow so it can contribute to a greater biodiversity in the forest. 
LM: If you had to write a eulogy for a cankerworm what would you say? 
SS: I guess I would have to say it was the best cankerworm it knew how to be.  That it excelled at being a cankerworm. 
LM: That it reproduced well.
SS: And it reproduced well.  It lived up to its biological function. 

So, cankerworms of Charlotte that’s the best farewell this tree-loving city can muster.  May you rest in peace. 

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.