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I just saw the biggest stinging caterpillar I have ever seen. I had never seen a stinging caterpillar until about five years ago. More accurately, I had never really looked for them until I read an article by University of Kentucky entomologist Ric Bessin back in 2003. He wrote that we should to be wary of stinging caterpillars this time of the year.
Shortly before reading the Bessin article, two people I worked 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. 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. There are several different species of stinging caterpillars in our area but they are typically found in wooded areas. Mostly they go unnoticed but some years may support more of a certain species then 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 quite beautiful. 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. 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,. This caterpillar is typically found feeding on bushes and lower tree branches of bayberry, redbud, oak, hickory, sycamore and wild cherry.
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, 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.