Stinging caterpillars pack a punch

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 13, 2013

SALISBURY — Humans are curious in nature and for the most part that is a quality that helps in learning. The problem is when curiosity leads to painful experiences.
One of the questions the extension office has received lately is what kind of caterpillar is this, are they dangerous, do they bite? More times than not, caterpillars are fairly harmless, but there are a few labeled as “stinging” caterpillars. This is where curiosity could possibly lead to a hospital visit.
North Carolina has a few stinging caterpillars. Some of the most popular are buck moth, saddleback and puss caterpillar. They prefer oak trees but have been found on other trees such as maple, pecan and elm.
On a recent walk I found three buck moth caterpillars on a small elm. When I went to take some photos of the caterpillars, two had dropped to the ground so I took a snap shot and left the scene fairly quickly.
Buck moths have a grayish black or brown body sprinkled with yellow specks. The spines can be a red to black color and young larvae are black. Buck moths can be voracious eaters and this can cause homeowners to be more in contact with them. Their sting can be quite painful and for some requires a visit to the doctor; sometimes the welts from the stings can remain on the skin for over a week.
One of the most beautiful stinging caterpillars is the saddleback caterpillar; it is also the most common. Saddleback caterpillars are beautifully marked, the majority of the body is green, with a reddish-brown “saddle” marking in the middle with a white margin.
They have “horns” of spines in the front and the rear; they also have spines along the lower portion of the body. Saddlebacks typically feed solitary so encounters with many are very rare. The sting of saddlebacks is very painful and one of the most severe. Stings typically occur in late summer and into the fall.
Puss caterpillars can cause some of the most painful stings, and for most states it is the most dangerous. Puss caterpillars are unique and some individuals often misidentify as small mammals. Some may even think they are cute and cuddly, but this is not the case. Puss caterpillars are covered in tan, grayish and brown hairs, their spines are hidden by those hairs. Stings from puss caterpillars have sent victims to seek medical attention, so be very cautious around them. Sting victims often develop swelling, numbness and nausea.
If stung by one of the stinging caterpillars, wash the area immediately and place an ice pack on the area to reduce swelling. Some lotions and creams that contain steroids will reduce the pain but some wounds may require medical attention.
To help reduce the likelihood of being stung learn how to identify stinging caterpillars. Your local Cooperative Extension agent can help.
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