Stinging caterpillars can provide unexpected pain

By: Clemson University Cooperative Extension

MIDLANDS - We are blessed in the southeast with a pleasant climate throughout most of the year.  A drawback of this blessing is that our weather does little to deter insects.

While many insects survive our mild winters either as eggs or other dormant states, a great number are able to withstand winter weather as adults. These insects quickly begin their activities as the weather warms in the spring. One of their main activities is reproduction to insure that plenty of offspring are around to enjoy the warm weather coming soon.

Most of us are familiar with the stinging and biting insects that fly around such as bees, wasps, and horseflies. However, there is another group of stinging insects that are often overlooked until you come into contact with them. These are the stinging caterpillars that are usually well camouflaged. Soon they will be out and about, so, by becoming aware of them, maybe you will be better able to avoid them.

Caterpillars are the immature stage of moths and butterflies. Many of these creatures have decorative tufts of hair on them.

Unfortunately, several caterpillars from three different families commonly occurring in South Carolina have irritating hairs or spines mixed in with the decorative tufts. These hairs or spines break off in a person's skin and release an irritating fluid causing a painful, stinging sensation accompanied by a red, rash-like irritation.

Unless an individual is allergic to the fluid from the caterpillar, the irritation goes away fairly quickly with no lasting effects. These caterpillars aren't aggressive and contact with them is usually incidental. However, children often will pick them up as their appearance makes them interesting.

These caterpillars are seen from early summer through fall. Proper treatment is to wash the affected area well with soap and water and apply a soothing ointment. A body rash or difficulty breathing may indicate an allergic reaction, and a physician should be contacted immediately.

The Io moth caterpillar is a large, (up to three inches) green caterpillar with a broad red stripe down its side. It is covered with tufts of stiff bristles filled with an irritating fluid. It feeds on a variety of plants including many trees, butterbeans, and corn. It is relatively uncommon and is the larva of a very beautiful, large moth. This is the only member of the Saturniidae family that stings.

The puss moth caterpillar is a member of the Megalopygidae family or the flannel moths.  The larvae of this group are generally covered with fine, dense hair that is often ¼ -inch long giving these larvae a furry appearance. Stinging hairs are mixed in with this 'fur.' The belly of these larvae is wide and flat giving them a 'slug-like' appearance. Adults of this group are small, furry, brown moths.

The slug caterpillar family is Limacodidae. Many members of this group have sucker-like structures on their belly, and a number of the caterpillars have stinging hairs or spines. The hagmoth caterpillar has long projections covered with soft hair and is brownish in color. The other stinging larvae have short projections covered with stiff spines and are brightly colored.  The most common of these is the green, brown, and white saddleback caterpillar which feeds on many plants including corn, and another common caterpillar is the yellow and orange stinging rose caterpillar. The adults are plump, brownish, furry moths.

Be aware that these insects will possibly be in your yard or garden and give them a wide berth to avoid feeling their sting.


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