It's Caterpillar Time!
Enjoy Their Beauty But Stay Away
Late Summer-Early Fall
“It was so cute and fuzzy I just had to touch it”…your exploring child is now screaming in pain.
“I’ve never seen something like this before, I just wanted to pick it up so someone else could see it too”…your hand is now red and you are in pain.
“All I was doing was working in the yard and a caterpillar dropped on me”…the back of your neck or hand is now red, itchy, and hurts like crazy.
Some of the caterpillars found in West Virginia can cause itchy reactions or painful stings. Examples specific to this state include the: saddleback caterpillar, stinging rose caterpillar, Hagmoth caterpillar (Monkey slug), Io moth caterpillar, tussock moth caterpillar, and puss caterpillar. Human contact with the puss caterpillar is not common but it is the caterpillar notorious for causing the most amount of pain for the longest amount of time. The puss caterpillar’s soft fur-like appearance can make the desire to touch them hard to resist (an original Star Trek fan would say they look like small Tribbles). West Virginia’s stinging caterpillars like broad leaf trees (maples, oaks for example); the puss caterpillar likes trees and plants such as elms, rose bushes, and ivy.
Unlike bees, caterpillars do not intentionally sting. The setae (hairs) which are like hollow spines can break off upon contact and enter the skin or the poison sac at the base of the hairs can break open when the hairs are brushed off causing the poison to leak out onto the skin. Some caterpillars do not have poison sacs under the setae (hairs) but the hairs themselves cause itchy reactions.
The majority of fuzzy caterpillars are not toxic. These caterpillars trick their prey by looking like caterpillars that do sting. A classic example in West Virginia is the woolley bear caterpillar. However, unless you want to conduct your own experiments on yourself to determine whether or not the caterpillar you just found is the stinging type, the best rule of thumb is to avoid touching any caterpillar with barbs or hairs. Another word of advice: dead stinging caterpillars and their shed skin or cocoons can still cause redness, pain, and itching! Do not touch these with your bare hands. Make sure your children also know not to touch them. Wide brim hats and long sleeves with gloves may help avoid accidental contact when gardening near trees and bushes this time of year.