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France ‘invaded’ by hairy, stinging caterpillars

In France, the beginning of summer means beach holidays and outdoor dining, but recent years have seen something else become a staple of the warmer months… the stinging caterpillar.

France 'invaded' by hairy, stinging caterpillars
The caterpillar's hairs can be dangerous when carried by the wind. Photo: XAVIER LEOTY / AFP.

Recent days have seen an increasing number of people complaining about skin irritation after coming into contact with les chenilles processionnaires (processionary caterpillars) which live in colonies in pine or oak trees, and can be harmful to humans as well as animals.

Once limited to specific regions of France, they are now a common sight all across the country. 

There are two different types depending on the trees which are present. The pine processionary caterpillar is present in large parts of France, mainly in the south, centre and west, and is common in winter and spring. The oak processionary caterpillar is most common in the north-east, the Paris region and north-western France, and is mainly seen between April and July, according to the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES)

Experts believe climate change has contributed to the spread of these insects, which require specific temperatures during winter.

“We have observed a warming of the air which has allowed them to survive and therefore to multiply,” Jérôme Rousselet, a researcher at the National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment told France Info.

Should I be worried?

The caterpillars can be a real annoyance in the countryside, because you don’t need to touch one in order to be affected, since their stinging hairs can be carried by the wind. Symptoms can happen after contact with the skin, the eyes, inhalation or ingestion. They include itchiness, eye pain, and coughing.

“I have spots everywhere, it’s itchy on my chest, my stomach, everywhere… I scratch until I draw blood,” a woman from the Grand Est region told TF1.

While few people experience serious symptoms, the insects can be more dangerous, and even fatal, to animals.

“If pets are affected, seek advice from a veterinarian or call one of the veterinary poison control centres (the Western France Animal and Environmental Poison Control Centre [CAPAE-Ouest] or the National Information Centre for Veterinary Toxicology [CNITV]),” advises the ANSES.

How can I avoid being stung?

The ANSES has published a number of recommendations, in English, on its website. These include wearing long clothing when walking in the forest, avoiding rubbing your eyes during a walk, and washing fruit and vegetables from your garden thoroughly if there is any known infestation nearby.

If you’re already experiencing symptoms, you should immediately wash the affected area with clear, cold water, and wash your clothes at a high temperature.

If you develop serious symptoms such as respiratory distress, dial 15 or go to the emergency room.

Member comments

  1. My husband just went to the ER in Maine for this. Don’t dry your clothes outside, that’s how he got it.

  2. We suffered an infestation in one of our Finnish Pine trees a few years ago. You have to cut the branch in which the nest has been made, and drown it in water (an old dustbin is fine for this) for at least a month to six weeks – the lavae can survive underwater for at least three weeks. That worked. You must NOT burn the nest, as the spines can be released into the air.

    Also, we were told by neighbours, to plant silver birch trees near to each pine tree, as these caterpillars do not like them for some reason. So we did, just tiny saplings which grow really fast, and have not been infected since! I have since seen this method being used in large tracts of forest around here.

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Scorching summer was France’s second hottest on record

Three heatwaves since June produced France's second-hottest summer since records began in 1900, the Météo France weather service said on Tuesday, warning that scorching temperatures will be increasingly common as the climate crisis intensifies.

Scorching summer was France's second hottest on record

With 33 days of extreme heat overall, average temperatures for June, July and August were 2.3C above normal for the period of 1991-2020.

It was surpassed only by the 2003 heatwave that caught much of France unprepared for prolonged scorching conditions, leading to nearly 15,000 heat-related deaths, mainly among the elderly.

Data is not yet available for heat-related deaths this summer, but it is likely to be significantly lower than 15,000 thanks to preventative measures taken by local and national authorities. 

Most experts attribute the rising temperatures to the climate crisis, with Météo France noting that over the past eight summers in France, six have been among the 10-hottest ever.

By 2050, “we expect that around half of summer seasons will be at comparable temperatures, if not higher,” even if greenhouse gas emissions are contained, the agency’s research director Samuel Morin said at a press conference.

The heat helped drive a series of wildfires across France this summer, in particular a huge blaze in the southwest that burned for more than a month and blackened 20,000 hectares. 

Unusually, wildfires also broke out even in the normally cooler north of the country, and in total an area five times the size of Paris burned over the summer. 

Adding to the misery was a record drought that required widespread limits on water use, with July the driest month since 1961 – many areas still have water restrictions in place.

MAP: Where in France are there water restrictions and what do they mean?

Forecasters have also warned that autumn storms around the Mediterranean – a regular event as air temperatures cool – will be unusually intense this year because of the very high summer temperatures. A storm that hit the island of Corsica in mid August claimed six lives. 

“The summer we’ve just been through is a powerful call to order,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said on Monday, laying out her priorities for an “ecological planning” programme to guide France’s efforts against climate change.