by Larry Williams, UF/IFAS Extension Agent
Did you know we have caterpillars that sting here in Northwest Florida? Well, we do and you’d be wise to learn about them and how to recognize them.
These caterpillars do not sting in the same way that a wasp or bee might sting. They do not have “stingers.” But they do have spines, also called nettling hairs, which are connected to poison glands that can inflict a painful reaction if touched.
The four nettling caterpillars that you are more likely to encounter in Florida are the hag caterpillar, Io moth caterpillar, puss caterpillar and saddleback caterpillar. Those that you are less likely to come in contact with include the buck moth caterpillar, flannel moth caterpillar, spiny oak-slug caterpillar and tussock moth caterpillar.
The “sting” is unintentional, not deliberate. When brushed against or touched, the toxin-bearing spines breakoff, releasing toxins. In some cases, broken spines pierce the skin. In other cases, toxins leak out onto the surface of the skin.
A University of Florida-IFAS Extension publication about these caterpillars states, “Some people experience severe reactions to the poison released by the spines and require medical attention. Others experience only an itching or burning sensation.”
The kind of reaction can depend on the type of caterpillar, extent of contact and susceptibility of individual. Fortunately, most of these caterpillars spend most of their time high up in trees away from us. But they can blow out of the trees during windy weather or come down still attached to branches and limbs that fall.
The saddleback caterpillar is more likely to be encountered because it feeds on many of our common landscape plants such as hibiscus and palms. But it is also know to feed on azaleas, fruit trees and even canna lilies. The saddleback caterpillar is striking in appearance with what looks like a bright green “blanket” draped over its back and a brown saddle-shaped oval area in the center of the blanket. Its spines are colorful, sharp and protrude from the front, back and sides of the caterpillar. It is stout and 1 to 1.5 inches long.
I’ve received questions about the puss caterpillar recently from people who have encountered it. This caterpillar is stout-bodied, almost 1 inch long and completely covered with gray to brown soft hairs. They seem to prefer leaves of oaks and citrus but they will feed on a variety of broadleaf trees and shrubs,
Because of their bright colors and interesting appearance, children may be tempted to touch or pick up some of these stinging caterpillars.
More information on these caterpillars is available at these websites.