LINCOLN SQUARE — A writhing mass of grubs greeted people visiting Welles Park in Lincoln Square this month, leaving behind devastated fields and lots of creeped-out neighbors.
The bugs, about the size of a ring finger, chewed up about a third of the popular park’s 15 acres, laying waste to what was once an expanse of vibrant grass between five baseball diamonds on the the eastern half of the park. The infestation at the park at Montrose and Western avenues was first reported by WTTW.
“It was worm soup and smelled like something was dying,” said Sydney Fontane, who lives nearby. She runs a dog-walking business and saw the grubs last week at the park when she and her boyfriend were walking past a pond of muddy water. They were grossed out by the smell of rot, she said.
“Some of them were dead, but some of them were still alive and poking up through the ground. It was gross,” Fontane said.
Beetles lay eggs in moist full-sun lawns around July. Once hatched, the grubs, which are the beetles’ larval stage, feed underground on grass roots, according to Tim Johnson, director of horticulture at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
An infestation can cause patches of wilted and browned grass on a lawn. Turf damage happens when the grub population reaches more than 10 to 12 per square foot of lawn.
But the damage to Welles Park goes beyond what some experts have seen. The state’s official entomologist Christopher Dietrich told WTTW’s Patty Wetli, “I don’t recall ever seeing an area devastated as badly.”
Normally the beetles’ eggs would be dispersed over a much wider area, so it was unusual to have so many grubs hatch in such a concentrated area, Dietrich told Block Club.
Before being told about the infestation, many neighbors thought the dirt field was man made. They were surprised to learn the mass devastation was caused by thousands of the small insects.
“I thought the park staff was pulling out the grass to either put in new turf or replant more grass. I know like there’s a lot of community sports going on at this park,” said Nick Gatz, who visits the park a few times a month.
“But now that I know that it’s grubs. That’s really sad. I’m from Austin, Texas. This is like what it looks like after Austin City Limits. The field just looks very torn up. It’s crazy that bugs caused this.”
Neighbors enjoying Saturday’s sunny weather at Welles Park saw a stark contrast between the brown, dusty dirt field caused by the infestation on the eastern side of the park and the verdant green grass still alive at the rest of the park.
“Several weeks ago, I first saw thousands and thousands of what looked like little white worms or caterpillars on the baseball fields,” said Erik Lillya, who was playing catch at the park Saturday. He comes to the park about three times a week. “They started appearing after several days of heavy rains.”
Neighbors told Block Club they saw the grubs on the sidewalks at nearby Winnemac Park on Thursday but didn’t see them on the grassy fields at that park.
“They were in puddles on the sidewalk at Winnemac. I didn’t know what they were at first,” said Catherine Elsey, a neighbor who frequents both Winnemac and Welles. “How is the city going to address this?”
The Park District is aware of the devastation caused by the infestation but could not confirm the scale of it at Welles Park or potentially at Winnemac Park, said spokeswoman Michele Lemons.
“The district’s Department of Natural Resources is aware of the issue at both parks and currently developing a plan the address the infestation that is not harmful to people or animals,” Lemons said.
The district is currently consulting experts on how to prevent future infestations on this scale but did not say what that long-term management could be. At Welles, any treatments will not begin until after Nov. 1 so as to not disrupt the park’s football programs, Lemons said.
After hearing from neighbors about the infestation, Ald. Matt Martin (47th) said in Friday’s ward newsletter that he’s talked to the district to “underscore the urgency” of addressing what happened.
The Park District is “in the process of confirming the ID of the species to get advice on how to best manage this pest going forward,” Martin said.
Aaron Durnbaugh, the Welles Park Advisory Council’s president, said the council is awaiting word on next steps.
“In general, we’d ask that [the district] use the least toxic solution to this issue to keep our families and pets safe when using the park but understand if limited chemical application is required given the issue,” Durnbaugh said.
The council launched a fundraiser Sunday to help the Park District treat and restore the areas of the park damaged by the grubs.
Dietrich, the entomologist, said the infestation itself could prevent one next year.
“A lot of times when you get a huge infestation with a really dense population like this, you get outbreaks of disease and fungi harmful to the beetles that knock back their population,” he said. “That could happen to these grubs and prevent something similar from happening next year.”
Adam Hite was at Welles with his wife and young son Saturday and pointed out the thousands of tiny holes, about the size of a pinhead, scattered across the dirt and sand of the baseball fields on the eastern side of the park. He was also at the park a few weeks ago after heavy rains and saw thousands of grubs surface.
“I’ve seen people play football out here. At first I thought the field was torn up due to that, but I was here when [there were] thousands of grubs that were on the ground,” Hite said. “For the most part, they were sticking to puddles. Anywhere there was a puddle the ground was completely covered with them, and most of them were dead.”
Later Saturday, a man began setting up folding tables and other decorations for a child’s birthday party on the baseball fields — unaware of the recent infestation. When told about it, he asked if the grubs were still around. That’s when Hite yelled from across the field that he’d found another half-alive grub slithering on top of a nearby baseball diamond.
The man promptly picked up his stuff and moved the birthday party to a concrete pad well away from the grubs.
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