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I just got a call from a reader in Taylorsville who was seeking an ID on a pest that was stinging her in the blackberry patch. She described the offender in very human terms – it looked like it was wearing glasses, had a green jacket on, little ears, etc. I could see the saddleback stinging caterpillar in my mind’s eye as she continued.
Additionally, a couple of people I work with were exchanging stories about how they had come into contact with a caterpillar that bit them, leaving a nasty rash behind; sounded interesting, though painful, to this insect loving girl. I explained that those “bites” where really venomous barbs or spines that got stuck in their skin. When they swatted the stinging caterpillar from their arm, the barbs were left behind.
I have encountered my share of stinging caterpillars. The biggest I have seen is the saddleback, but what makes them most fascinating to me is their unique and usually vivid colorations. This is the time of the year to appreciate and to be weary of stinging caterpillars.
Caterpillars are the larval stage of moths and butterflies; and being a caterpillar is risky business. Humans don’t like you and birds love to eat you, so having some poisonous spines on your body sure comes in handy.
There are several different species of stinging caterpillars in our area but they are typically found in wooded areas, so urban and suburban dwellers likely won’t come into contact with them as often as those who live and garden in more wooded areas.
Mostly, they go unnoticed, but some years may support more of a certain species than others. So far I have only seen the io moth caterpillar in the cucumbers this year.
The two that you may come into contact with this year include the saddleback caterpillar and the stinging rose caterpillar. The saddleback caterpillar is actually really beautiful, but of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder. As the name suggests, the saddleback caterpillar has a green saddle-shape marking on its back with a purple spot right in the middle. The rest of the body is brown with spines skirting the lower part of the body. The caterpillar has a set of spine-covered horns on the front and rear so it is quite adept at protecting itself. The saddleback is particularly fond of chestnut, cherry, oak and plum foliage.
Another stinging caterpillar you might see this year is the stinging rose caterpillar. This one has a yellow to rose-colored (light red) body with distinctive black and blue stripes that run down the center of its back. There are a series of spiny horns that run down both sides of this caterpillar’s back so it is well equipped to deliver a sting if threatened. This caterpillar is typically found feeding on bushes and lower tree branches of bayberry, redbud, oak, hickory, sycamore and wild cherry.
There are other caterpillars that leave a lasting impression, too. The buck moth feeds on oaks and willows; the io moth likes corn, roses, willows, lindens, elms, oaks, locust, apple, beech, ash, currant and clover; the hag moth, which looks like a dried leaf; and the puss caterpillar (yes, it has soft hair like a kitten, but the hair is hiding the spines underneath, I think it looks like a bad toupee) usually feeds in groups on elms, maples, hackberry and oak. The tussock moth looks like a decked out Mardi Gras showgirl; the tussock moth reminds me of the guy on the Jim Buckner car commercial with hair dyed neon green.
The spines are what provide the defense for the caterpillar by delivering a poison that causes skin irritation. So, let spines and bright colors be a warning to you. If you do come into contact with one, be careful when removing the caterpillar. Take a stick and try to flick it off so that the spines don’t break off and penetrate the skin.
If you are stung, take some adhesive tape to try and remove some of the spines. Then, wash with soap and water to remove any of the irritating poison. If we were a small predator, the end result, of course, would be more permanent.