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A plague bordering on biblical; Millions of armyworms have destroyed acres of feed on a Clarence horse farm

At first glance, the ground at Maple Row Farm appears to be moving.

It's not, but the millions of armyworms that crawl on the horse paths and stalks of grass on the many acres of this Clarence farm make it seem that way.

For Hans J. Mobius, a plague has arrived.

And it's only the beginning. Another wave of the insects could be on the way.

Mobius first noticed the fat black or greenish brown insects, actually caterpillars, on his horse farm Tuesday. In a matter of days they have taken out whole fields of grass, acres upon acres intended to feed the horses.

They move across the fields at night.

"This whole field is just a total loss," Mobius said as he inspected a field where grass used to stand tall just days ago. He now can't take a step without crushing some of the bugs, and in some places, nearly every stalk of grass leans to the side, under the weight of a fat caterpillar, each an inch or two long.

The invasion, like something out of a horror movie, has taken farmers like Mobius by surprise, and could be an expensive problem as they are forced to replace feed destroyed by the armyworms.

The armyworms arrive from the South every year, but not usually in numbers this devastating, said Jason Dombroskie, collection manager for Cornell University's insect collection.

An early spring could have helped build up the armyworms' numbers, Dombroskie said.

Moths come in from the South and lay their eggs in lush green fields. The larvae emerge a week or two later and consume whole fields.

The caterpillars will soon turn into moths, and then another wave of caterpillars "most definitely" will emerge from the ground in about another month, Dombroskie said. The size of the next infestation depends on the strength of the insects' natural predators, he said.

"You really can't predict what will happen," he said.

The conditions that encourage such large numbers aren't exactly known.

Armyworms are so named because once they have exhausted a food supply, they move en masse to another location, Dombroskie said.

Some of the hay at Mobius' farm could be used for cattle at other farms, but not for the horses.

"For our purposes, it's done," he said.

Mobius estimates he might have to spend five or six dollars for a bale of hay, and he needs between 8,000 and 9,000 of them, he said.

He doesn't have a license to apply the necessary pesticide and doesn't know if he'll be able to save what little healthy grass is left. He estimates 75 percent of his nearly 100 acres has been destroyed.

"It's an absolute disaster," he said.

In the nearly 12 years he's been at the farm, he hasn't seen an invasion like this one.

The armyworm outbreaks have been found in Marilla, Evans, Newstead, Clarence and in Genesee and Wyoming counties, and started to be reported last week, said Sharon Bachman, community educator for agriculture with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Erie County.

Armyworm outbreaks only happen about once every 10 years, but Bachman said she hopes that the magnitude of this year's outbreak is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.

In addition to hay, plants such as wheat, oats and corn could be impacted, she said.

Once these caterpillars turn into moths, they are expected to head north into Canada.

Five miles away from Maple Row Farm, at Arrowhead Golf Club in Newstead, brown patches of grass along a stretch of the cart path are evidence that armyworms had been there, but far fewer caterpillars were visible than there had been the day before, said Jason Tomei, the club's general manager. Tomei suspects the decline had to do with pesticides used by groundskeepers.

But he had seen enough to know that when the bugs are stepped on, green slime emerges. "It's like something out of 'Men in Black,' " Tomei said. "It's disgusting."

email: jterreri@buffnews.com