COLUMN: Masters of camouflage: Look out for stinging caterpillars

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By Jeneen Wiche

This time of the year I am on the lookout for a variety of masterfully camouflaged stinging caterpillars.  The first time I saw one it sort of turned into a game:  I took Andy down to the Parrotia tree and said “can you find the caterpillar?”  He never did because this caterpillar looked exactly like the scorched edge of a leaf that would be a result of a long hot summer.  
While I have never been stung myself I have heard many stories about how people have come into contact with a caterpillar that bit them, leaving a nasty rash behind. Those “bites” where really venomous barbs or spines that get stuck in their skin.  When they swatted the stinging caterpillar from their arm the barbs were left behind.  
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.  
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 eyes 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.
The other 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 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) which usually feeds in groups on elms, maples, hackberry and oak.
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!