Several years of damage by a trio of caterpillars - winter moth, forest tent and gypsy moth - have left many trees defoliated, weak or dead, and easily toppled.

A crane hoisted Jeff Palaza some 40 feet into the air, where the arborist fixed a guide rope around the large limb of a dead tree along Route 18 in Whitman.

Back on the ground, Palaza made a cut, one of three needed to clear the tree from a spot close to the Knights of Columbus Hall.

"We were getting scared it might come down," said Larry Quirk, a club member who watched the operation.

It was just one of hundreds of dead trees that Palaza and his company, McDonough Tree Service Inc. of Whitman and Bridgewater, have removed this year.

Several years of damage by a trio of caterpillars - winter moth, forest tent and gypsy moth - have left many trees defoliated, weak or dead, and easily toppled.

"We've had double the call for dead trees this year," said Palaza.

Throughout the region, on private and public property, trees - mostly oaks - are void of leaves, the limbs brittle. They pose a hazard to people and property, especially during wind and rain storms and with winter ice and snow.

The winter's scant snowfall on top of relatively low rainfall in recent years have further stressed the trees, making them susceptible to insects that caused even more damage.

"We're reaping a dead harvest of trees," said Deborah Swanson, Plymouth County Extension horticulturist. "I haven't seen this many dead trees in years."

The damage extends throughout Plymouth County and beyond, especially in the area from Whitman south. The cities of Brockton and Taunton have escaped large scale damage, according to their respective tree wardens.

In between the two cities lies West Bridgewater, where tree warden Christopher Iannitelli has had to triple his budget from $5,000 to nearly $15,000 to keep up with dead tree removal.

"In 1991, we took down 14 trees," he said. "In 2006, we took down 63 trees; in (fiscal year) 2007, 105 trees."

Crews are already marking the trees that will be cut down beginning in January. Meanwhile, dead limbs overhanging public ways will be trimmed in the fall.

Rose Campbell, highway superintendent in Halifax, isn't waiting for winter. "Hurricane season, they'll fall over for sure," she said.

The problem exists on private property, too.

"Get rid of them now," advises Chris Voelker of New England Tree company of Easton. "They're just going to be a problem later."

In this tight economy, he said people are often hesitant to spend several hundred to several thousands of dollars, depending on the job, to remove the trees. Folks are hopeful they will bloom again.

"If there's no signs of life, it's unlikely they're going to come back," he said.

Elaine Allegrini of The Enterprise (Brockton, Mass.) can be reached at eallegrini@enterprisenews.com.