All Cotton, No Candy

All Cotton, No Candy

Lights twinkling in the dusk. Laughter and music coming from every corner, ebbing and flowing as the Merry-Go-Round circles and the Tilt-a-Whirl makes its stomach-tumbling spins and dips. Friends racing from ride to ride, families skipping to the concession stand and couples holding hands, their silhouettes framed in the light.

The carnival. And it's not complete without classic, sugar-rush-inducing foods - so many options it's hard to make a choice. The candy apple - glossy red and sticky sweet. The funnel cake, fried and drizzled with chocolate sauce and powdered sugar. Apple fritters, warm out of the fryer with flavors of tart Granny Smith bursting with cinnamon and sugar.

And then there's cotton candy. Threaded sugar twirled onto a stick in unmistakable pastel shades of Easter egg blue and baby pink. It sticks to your fingers and your nose. And when you take a bite, it's fluffy as air in your mouth and then melts swiftly into a sweet syrup on your tongue.

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Cotton candy has been on my mind lately - unfortunately not because I've seen it at a carnival. Rather, I've seen it in trees everywhere. On my drive to work each day, on my walks in the park and even in my own backyard. But this cotton is not pretty, nor sweet. It doesn't inspire the same memories of being a 10-year-old girl next in line at the Ferris Wheel either.

This cotton is a transparent white silk and it webs around the ends of tree branches, encasing them. Peering inside I can see dead branches and small white, wriggly caterpillars that are covered with long, white or yellowish hairs.

Fall webworms.

To make matters worse, these little worms then web their way to the ground on long thin strands that are near invisible, which means they usually get stuck in your hair or on your shirt if you happen to walk beneath one.

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The fall webworm's cotton candy-like cocoon.

Though the damage is unsightly and the experience is a little like being in the spider scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (except with much smaller insects and not inside of a dark cave), you may be wondering whether your poor tree will survive this Halloween-costume-shrouded worm feast. There, we have some good news. "Tree damage is considered to be insignificant from fall webworm," says Anand Persad, an entomologist with The Davey Institute. "Though the fall webworm will feast on many deciduous tree species, the problem is purely aesthetic in nature."

But there are some things you can do to keep your cotton candy thoughts as carnival daydreams vs. nightmares exploding from your trees.

Small fall webworm nests can be easily pruned out of young trees. Monitor trees early to detect the nests when only several leaves are involved. Once the nest is pruned, it can be simply crushed.

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A closer look inside the fall webworm's feeding site.

Biological controls also help manage fall webworm. Yellow jackets and birds will help you take care of fall webworms if your yard is inviting to these predators.

Luckily, this year seems to be an average year for the fall webworm. However, these pests can go through periodic population explosions and have been known to severely defoliate trees, usually in the Southern U.S. Insecticides can help control populations that have gotten out of control.

In the meantime, next time you see a web in your tree and you start thinking un-sweet thoughts about giant mutant spiders or ghosts in the forest, go to a summer carnival instead and indulge in the soft spun sugar that never disappoints.

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