Stinging Caterpillars Make an Appearance in Home Gardens

— Written By

If it stings or bites, it probably makes its home in Brunswick County. From the biting flies that terrorized us earlier this summer, to the ever-pleasant mosquitoes and fire ants, there are a lot of critters out there that can make life outdoors unpleasant. In recent days, however, reports of a stinging caterpillar that bears an uncanny resemblance to a small toupee have been coming into the Extension Office. These hairy caterpillars look harmless, but those who have experienced its sting quickly realize it is anything but. Meet the pus caterpillar.

What is this caterpillar?

Coming in at about one inch in length, the pus caterpillar is the larval form of the southern flannel moth, a small attractive moth native to the Southeastern United States. While the adult is completely harmless to humans, the larvae are considered one of the most venomous caterpillars in the United States. They typically are found feeding on the leaves of oak and elm tree species, but may feed on up to 40 different plant species.

With two life cycles per year, the southern flannel moth emerges sometime in the beginning of summer, and again in the fall. During this time of the year, many of the caterpillars are in a stage of pre-pupation, a behavior known as “wandering.” This is the stage at which the caterpillar will roam the foliage of plants looking for a place to spin a cocoon. What this means for you is that you are likely to find them on all types of plants around your home, so care should be taken when pruning leaves, or handling plant material.

Don’t panic!

While any bite or sting from a venomous insect may have cause for concern, the sting of the pus caterpillar is not fatal, although some may experience severe allergic reactions to the venom. The severity of the reaction depends on the site at which you are stung and the thickness of the skin in the affected area. The likelihood of getting stung is unlikely; however you should always be aware of your surroundings and take general safety precautions to avoid accidents.

If you are stung, masking tape may be used to remove the stinging hairs from the affected area. Apply ice and a topical hydrocortisone cream, or take an oral antihistamine to reduce swelling.

Pus caterpillar populations are kept in check by natural enemies and chemical control is not recommended. If you have more questions about control options, please contact the Extension Office in Bolivia at (910) 253-2610.