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Crawling the Lines

“I heard the guys talking about how they spent the whole weekend chasing caterpillars,” said Sam Houston Electric Cooperative line technician Jason Valderez.

I knew he had had a long night based on the photo he shared of the creepy crawly caterpillars—timed stamped at 2:50 a.m.

Jason had been out sick a couple days prior, so this was his first experience with tent caterpillars, or as some locals refer to them as “oak worms.”

The recent outbreak has left some Sam Houston Electric Cooperative members in the dark. The colorful, 1.5-inch caterpillars hatch by the millions covering homes, trees and even electrical equipment. See the full story here.

Jason told me that they’ve been “running trouble” mostly in the southern half of the Cooperative’s service territory. And areas along the Trinity River seem to have the worst infestation.

“I pulled up to my first case of trouble,” Jason said. “I didn’t know what to think. This was my first experience with the caterpillars.”

Jason, an East Texas native and seasoned line technician, has been through hurricanes, drought, ice storms and even Ips beetle infestations. But a pole full of “worms,” would send a shiver down anyone's spine.

“I was so glad I was able to get my bucket truck close enough to the pole,” Jason said. “I didn’t want to climb that pole. The pole was completely covered in caterpillars.”

It’s not just the obvious visual that would make someone not want to climb it; the swarm of caterpillars can be safety hazard as well.

“You can feel them falling on you as you’re working,” Jason said, telling me about this particular case of trouble that involved a fuse cutout. This piece of equipment is in place to protect a transformer.

When enough caterpillars cover the surface area of the equipment, they ultimately take away the insulating ability. In this case, it causes the fuse to melt, disconnecting the transformer from the line and resulting in a power outage.

“There’s no knocking them [caterpillars] off the equipment,” Jason said. “As soon as you do, more will be crawling back up.”

Jason told me that the equipment is usually damaged enough that it has to be replaced. There are a few things they [line technicians] have been trying to keep the caterpillars from causing repeat outages, but for the most part, they’ve been having to go back to the same areas to restore power as the caterpillars relentlessly return.

Ravenous for vegetation, the caterpillars can defoliate a tree, particularly oaks, to the point of permanent damage. Just like with the Ips beetle outbreaks in recent years, severely damaged trees can cause power outages when they fall or drop limbs on power lines.

Eventually, the caterpillars form cocoons and emerge as brown and yellowish moths with wingspans of about one inch, according to Texas A&M AgriLIFE Extension. Though the moths do not feed on vegetation, they do lay eggs beginning the life cycle over again.

“You can look down a stretch of line,” Jason said, “and all you can see is caterpillars crawling along the neutral. Sometimes the swarm is so thick, you can’t even see the neutral.”

Posted by: Mary Kate Pedigo, CCC, Communications Specialist