Gypsy moth

The brownish yellow and black, hairy caterpillars of this moth can defoliate a variety of trees and shrubs. Since the mid 1990s the European strain of this moth has become established in London and some surrounding areas.

Gypsy moth caterpillar (<EM>Lymantria dispar</EM>) RHS / Sian Tyrrell
Gypsy moth caterpillar (Lymantria dispar) RHS / Sian Tyrrell

Quick facts

Common name Gypsy moth
Scientific name Lymantria dispar
Plants affected A wide variety of trees and shrubs
Main symptoms Large (up to 7cm long) brownish yellow, hairy caterpillars
Most active April to August

What is gypsy moth?

Gypsy moth, also known as the spongy moth, has caterpillars that can defoliate trees and shrubs. The European strain of this moth has become established in London and surrounds. The adults are sexually dimorphic (have different appearances); males have a wingspan of 3.5-4cm and are greyish brown, females have a wingspan of 4.5-6cm and are white with a few darker markings.

It is the caterpillars that are often noticed in gardens as they are up to 7cm long and have yellowish heads with hairy brownish yellow and black bodies. There are a series of 5 pairs of blue spots and 6 pairs of red spots along the body. Numbers of caterpillars can reach high densities and trees and shrubs can be stripped of foliage.   


Large (up to 7cm long) brownish yellow and black hairy caterpillars, with red and blue markings causing defoliation of large parts of  a wide variety of trees or shrubs.

Gypsy moth should not be confused with oak processionary moth, which has dark coloured caterpillars with fine white hairs and  only found on oak. Hairs from the gypsy moth do not usually cause irritation but those from oak processionary moth often do.

The caterpillars of gypsy moth are present from April to August and when fully grown pupate on a surface such as the bark of a tree, brick wall or other vertical surface. The pupal stage lasts about two weeks and emerging adult moths are active from July to September. Eggs are laid in clusters of 50-800 on the bark of host plants. These clusters are covered in hairs and measure up to 4cm in diameter; the eggs hatch the following spring.

The moth is most prevalent in London and a few surrounding areas. More infomation can be found from Forest Research.


Check susceptible plants frequently from spring so action can be taken before a damaging population has developed. When choosing control options you can minimise harm to non-target animals by using the methods in the non-pesticide section below.
Treatment is usually only possible and worthwhile on small trees and shrubs. Whilst a single defoliation from this caterpillar even early in the season, should not affect the vigour of a host plant, repeated defoliations can have an adverse effect. Pesticide treatments are likely to kill natural enemies and are only likely to be successful if the entire plant can be reached.


  • Where possible tolerate populations of caterpillars, as butterflies and moths are an important part of the garden ecosystem. Encourage predators and other natural enemies in the garden such as birds, hedgehogs and ground beetles
  • Check plants regularly from April for the presence of larvae and remove by hand where practical. Although the hairs are not known to be irritant wearing gloves should be considered


The RHS recommends that you don't use pesticides. Most pesticides (including organic types) reduce biodiversity, including natural enemies, impact soil health and have wider adverse environmental effects.
Where you cannot tolerate gypsy moth, manage them using the information above as your first course of action.
Pesticide treatments are likely to kill natural enemies and so reduce the likelihood of natural control and can lead to resurgence of the target animal.
If you do decide to use pesticides, the shorter persistence products (that are usually certified for organic growing) are likely to be less damaging to non-target wildlife.
The pesticides listed are legally available in the UK. This information is provided to avoid misuse of legal products and the use of unauthorised and untested products, which potentially has more serious consequences for the environment and wildlife than when products are used legally.
Always follow the instructions on the products. For edible plants, make sure the food plant is listed on the label and follow instructions on maximum number of applications, spray interval and harvest interval.
Homemade products are not recommended as they are unregulated and usually untested.
Be aware that products such as Neem oil are not registered for use in the UK and we cannot advise on their use.
Plants in flower must not be sprayed due to to the danger to bees and other pollinating insects.

If numbers of larvae are too high for hand picking, control may be achieved by spraying with pesticides. Spraying at dusk is likely to give the best results.Young larvae are more susceptible to insecticides than older caterpillars. 
  • Organic contact insecticides containing natural pyrethrins (e.g. Bug Clear Ultra 2, Neudorff Bug Free Bug and Larvae Killer) have a largely physical mode of action. These are broad spectrum so will kill a wide range of insects. These pesticides have a very short persistence and so may require reapplication to keep gypsy numbers in check. Plant oil and fatty acid products are less likely to affect larger insects like ladybirds
  • Further information about the use of pesticides available for management of gypsy moth is available on the pesticides for gardeners leaflet
 Inclusion of a pesticide product does not indicate a recommendation or endorsement by RHS Gardening Advice. It is a list of products currently available to the home gardener.


Pesticides for gardeners (pdf document)


The native British strain of gypsy moth which fed on bog-myrtle (Myrica gale) and creeping willow (Salix repens) went extinct in the early 1900s. However, the European form of the insect became established in London during the 1990s. It can feed on a wide variety of trees and shrubs. Large numbers of the caterpillars cause significant defoliation and in North America, where it is also a non-native, the moth can be a serious problem in woodlands and forests. 

Adult moths emerge from pupae during the summer months. Females release a sex pheromone which attracts the males. Eggs are laid in clusters of up to 800 under a layer of hairs. The eggs hatch in spring. Hatchling larvae are 2mm long hairy and dark, as they grow they remain hairy become brownish yellow with red and blue markings, the head is a dirty yellow colour. The caterpillars can reach 7cm long before finding a place to pupate in mid to late summer. The pupae are anchored to vertical surfaces such as tree bark and walls. After two weeks adult moths emerge.

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