Beware, the porcupines of the insect world are back. Barbed hooks, quill-like hairs, poisonous sacs, and stinging spines, Oh My! Depending on your locale, mid-summer to early fall is the time when most stinging encounters with caterpillars occur. I first learned about this category of caterpillars, in 2006 when our youngest son brought a leaf to me from the snowball bush beside the house. On it was the most intriguing caterpillar I had ever seen. It looked like a miniature Scottie dog wearing a blanket with two stiff tufts of hair on either side of its head. I thought it rather cute, at the time. Not so much anymore. A little research revealed this to be a Saddleback Caterpillar, definitely in the stinging category. Fortunately, we kept our distance, until, fast forward twelve years, another encounter.
Recently, while mowing grass I brushed up against some leaves on a Carolina Buckthorn tree. Instantly I felt a nettling sensation, like being pricked with multiple tingling needles at once, everywhere my body had made contact with leaves. I knew that the intense tingling sensation I was experiencing wasn’t caused by the plant, and it was different than a wasp or bee sting. A slight goose-bump like rash broke out on one finger and the places on my bare arm that brushed against the leaves. A close inspection of the tree branches revealed the source. Hidden on the undersides of the leaves were the fuzzy, spine-like tentacles of the stinging Saddleback Caterpillar. There were several caterpillars on more than one leaf. (Pictured in top photo.)
There are around nine different stinging caterpillars in this country. Physical contact with one of these creatures can be realized as a stinging, nettling, or itching sensation. The tiny hollow quills on their body are connected to poison sacs. Brushing against the spine triggers a release of the poison. Some caterpillars have a more severe sting than others. Several of the caterpillars in the stinging category do not possess typical characteristics of caterpillars in appearance whatsoever.
Stinging caterpillars can generally be found on deciduous trees such as oak and chestnut. However, the Saddleback and Io Moth can also be found on corn plants or crepe myrtle bushes. The Puss Caterpillar is thought to carry the most severe sting of all. It does not look like a caterpillar at first glance with its fuzzy soft appearance and has been found on English ivy and roses. Probably the most unusual of all stinging caterpillars is the Hagmoth. Its shape resembles a dried, brown leaf. Other stinging caterpillars include: Buck Moth, Hickory Tussock Moth, Silverspotted Tiger Moth, Stinging Rose Caterpillar, and Euclea delphinii.
Preventing Caterpillar Stings
Most green bushes or trees with new growth are susceptible to stinging caterpillar infestation. Caterpillars feeding on leaves blend in well with the host plant, and are often hidden on the underside of the leaves, as shown in the photo below. Look closely before you touch. When pruning shrubs and trees this time of year, wear gloves and long sleeves to avoid accidental contact with stinging caterpillars. A good rule of thumb to teach children is that any caterpillars that are hairy, prickly or fuzzy are best left untouched. Being able to recognize these poisonous creatures may help prevent getting stung. I encourage you to view the superb photographs of other stinging caterpillars for identification at https://entomology.ca.uky.edu/ef003
First Aid Treatment for Caterpillar Stings
Wash the area with soap and water first. Use scotch tape to remove any spines left in your skin. Applications of aloe vera, a paste made with baking soda and water, calamine lotion or ammonia have been reported to give some relief to the stinging sensation or rash. If swelling occurs, apply ice packs. Those with allergic reactions may need to seek professional medical assistance.
About the Author:
Deborah Tukua is a nonfiction author, and editor of Journey to Natural Living. She is author of seven books including, Naturally Sweet Blender Treats: 55 Fresh from the Blender Recipes, and Marketing Strategies for Chiropractic Success. Deborah has been a regular lifestyle feature writer for the Farmers' Almanac since 2004.
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