We have had many storms in our area in recent weeks. These storms have brought us much-needed rain, but in some instances the wind has brought down trees and tree limbs.
These downed limbs and trees can bring into our reach some insects that we rarely see or come in contact with. Some of these insects we don't want to come in contact with. These are a group of caterpillars known as the stinging caterpillars.
Most of these caterpillars live in and feed on tree leaves. Therefore, they are high up in the tree and we very seldom see them. However, I have had deer hunters who are climbing trees come in contact with these insects and had experienced painful stings.
The stinging caterpillars have poison spines for defense against predators. The spines are usually hidden in tufts of hairs. There are a number of these caterpillars in our area. Some of these are saddleback caterpillar, hag moth caterpillar, puss caterpillar and the slug caterpillars.
The most common of the stinging caterpillars is the saddleback (Sibine stimulea). More people come in contact with this stinging caterpillar than any other because they feed on numerous trees, shrubs and flowers. Their food sources are plants that we come in contact with every day, such as canna lilies, azaleas, fruit trees and other lilies.
Fortunately for us, the moths that lay the eggs lay single eggs and not masses of eggs. The adults will fly all year long, but tend to fly mostly during the warmer months.
The caterpillar is brown with a pronounced green saddle-shaped area over the center of the body. The spines are colorful and sharp and protrude from the front, back and sides of the caterpillar. The spines are connected to poison gland cells.
The sting from these caterpillars is very painful. During the pupation stage, this caterpillar can still sting. The spines are retained on the outside of the pupa case.
If you want to see a bizarre insect, you need to look no further than the hag moth larva. The hag moth caterpillar (Phobetron pithecium) has numerous long curved spines along the sides of the body, mainly on the third, fifth, and seventh segments of the body. Like the saddleback caterpillar, the spines are attached to the poison glands and will cause a painful sting. The hag moth caterpillar can be found on many of our trees and shrubs, such as sassafras, spirea, and wild rose.
Another species with stinging hairs is the puss caterpillar (Megalopyge opercularis). This is a very common species in the South. It mainly feeds on leaves of oak, hackberry, elm and sycamore. The caterpillars are densely covered in long hairs that might be yellowish, reddish brown or mouse gray. The young larva typically feed in groups. They will eat all of the leaf material between the veins, leaving a skeleton of the leaf. In our area, there are two generations per year.
The last stinging caterpillar are the slug caterpillars. Some of these caterpillars such as the hackberry leaf slug look like a caterpillar. The hackberry leaf slug feeds on redbud, red maple and hackberry. They have six small tufts of stinging hairs on each segment.
The other slug caterpillars, such as the skiff moth, do not look like caterpillars at all. They are shaped like triangles. These triangles have short spines along the edge of the triangle. They tend to feed on oaks, elms and hickories.
If you have fallen limbs or trees in your yard, you should protect yourself against these caterpillars by wearing long-sleeved shirts and gloves. Also, you can reduce your exposure by not brushing up against the leaves. If you come into contact with one of these caterpillars, you can remove the spines with adhesive tape. The poison from these caterpillars can cause burning and itching for several hours.
Stinging caterpillars are not seen or dealt with that often, but they can cause painful stings. So be careful when handling fallen branches or trees.
Columbia County Extension Agent Charles Phillips can be reached at (706) 868-3413 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Extension Web address is www.ugaextension.com/columbia.
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