Stung by a Saddleback Caterpillar

September 22, 2011

Sibine Stimulea Saddleback CaterpillarWe encountered our first Saddleback Caterpillar two years ago. We turned the caterpillar into a photo opp and added him to the blog after doing some research and finding out how nasty his stingers could be. Thankfully we had not touched the caterpillar as the sting is reputed to “burn like fire” with pain that can last for days. Side effects of a Saddleback Caterpillar sting can include nausea, dizziness, a rash, sweating, cold chills, tingling, numbness, and possibly even heart palpitations.

Every hair on the Saddleback Caterpillar has a poison sac at the base so brushing up against one of these beauties can produce a multitude of stings. It’s not that the caterpillar goes out of his way to sting you; he’s a rather slow-moving slug caterpillar who mostly just sits in one place. Known scientifically as Acharia stimulea or Sibine stimulea, the Saddleback Caterpillar can be found almost year-round in warm climates such as we have in Georgia. His range extends from Massachusetts all the way down into Mexico, and in the cooler climates you’ll likely see him from June through August. Like our encounter two years ago, today’s encounter was in September. Unlike two years ago, this time he stung me.

As part of my fall gardening, I was cutting down some three-foot tall orange lilies that grow on thick stalks filled with a milky white sap. A sudden sharp pain shot into my pinky finger and immediately spread all the way up my arm. The pain was fierce and it did indeed burn like fire. It was as if someone had poured scalding hot water up my arm.

I did not yet know the cause, whether it was an insect or whether the milky sap was somehow responsible. Either way I needed to eliminate the poison as quickly as possible so I ran inside, washed my hand with liquid dish soap, then washed it again with a bar of Octagon Soap that we kept handy to wash off poison ivy oils. My pinky finger was burning like the dickens and I still had pain going up the side of my hand and higher up my arm.

I wondered if some insect had stung me more than once as I reached down into the tall flowers. Though I couldn’t see any type of a stinger sticking out, I’d read that scraping with a credit card was effective for removing cactus hairs so I grabbed a business card and scraped my finger. My husband grows hundreds of cactus plants so cactus hair removal is a given in our house and it was all I could think of to do. Scraping the area actually did seem to help a little but the best suggestion to remove Saddleback Caterpillar hairs is to use sticky tape.

I told my husband that something had stung me but I didn’t know what. My theory was a wasp sting, wondering if I’d encountered a Cow Killer Wasp or a scorpion. I’d never had a sting result in pain shooting two feet from the original sting so I figured something nastier than normal had stung me. We’d found Cow Killer Wasps and scorpions in the past so either was a potential culprit. I also considered a Saddleback Caterpillar as we’d previously found one of them as well.

Sibine Stimulea Saddleback CaterpillarMy husband offered a different theory — one which threw me into a total panic. What if it were a spider bite? We’d also spotted a Black Widow spider a couple years earlier and now the fear of a medical emergency took hold. I had to find out what stung me.

The last thing I said to my husband before going on a hunting trip in the garden was that a Saddleback Caterpillar sting at least wouldn’t kill you, so of all the really nasty options, a Saddleback sting would have been preferable to a Black Widow spider bite. The first place I looked for the culprit was in the garbage can I’d been throwing the garden waste into and there I spotted a Saddleback Caterpillar, still sitting happily on the lily I’d just cut down.

At least now I knew what had stung me. While it hurt like hell, I could stop worrying about a death march or a trip to the hospital. I spent the next several hours either photographing the Saddleback Caterpillar or looking to see if he had siblings nearby. Photos on the internet often showed several caterpillars huddled together so I knew it was a strong likelihood that there’d be more of the Saddleback Caterpillars in the same garden bed.

While I did not find a whole nest of Saddleback Caterpillars, I did find one more. He was a bit bigger than the first and about two feet away, feeding on my Black-Eyed Susans. Once I’d taken several photos and exhausted the search for more of these colorful, lime green caterpillars with a brown saddle on their backs, I debated the fate of the two I’d found. The original Saddleback Caterpillar of two years ago was left to his own devices, where he promptly went on to be fruitful and multiply. Did I really want to let them multiply for future encounters to sting me again?

Sibine Stimulea Saddleback CaterpillarI struggled with the decision. I hate killing creatures of nature with a few exceptions. Fleas, mosquitos, cockroaches, rats, mice, ants, and termites are among the exceptions. Any creature who goes out of its way to attack you, feed on you or your pets, or damage your home, are on my hit list and will soon find their demise. Innocent creatures going about their business and not seeking you out, they fall into a different category of God’s creatures and I don’t generally kill them.

My conscience struggled, finally coming to the decision to relocate the Saddleback Caterpillars. My method of relocation probably wouldn’t have met with the approval of my neighbors. I took them down to the lake intending to set them asail, each on his own leaf where they’d at least have a chance to land somewhere off of our property. The first caterpillar went off on his leaf and as far as I know, he had a good chance of landing somewhere. I watched him sailing away for a long time.

The second Saddleback Caterpillar, however, was not as cooperative. I could not get him onto a leaf. I laid a leaf down next to him and he wanted no part of it. I nudged him with a piece of pine straw but instead of moving away from the pine straw onto the leaf, the caterpillar curled around as if trying to sting the pine straw. I was fascinated by his spunk. Every time I tried to nudge him, he did not fail to curl every stinger into the intruding object.

Sibine Stimulea Saddleback CaterpillarWe did battle for several minutes with his stubborn refusal to crawl onto the leaf. Then we had an accident and he went off the edge of the dock and into the water. NOOOoooo! That wasn’t my intention! I threw the leaf down next to him hoping he’d latch onto it but he still wanted no part of that leaf, even to save his own life. I ran and got a stick hoping that would do it for him but by then it was too late. The Saddleback Caterpillar didn’t seem to have any will to latch onto anything. He rolled around on top of the water for a few brief seconds and then went still. Apparently, caterpillars drown much the same way we do.

I made one last ditch effort to give him a stick to grab hold of but his lifeless body sank down into the water. I watched his lime green carcass as it sank all the way to the bottom of the lake. I wondered if a fish would try to eat the dead caterpillar and if so, would the fish experience the stingers as I had? I felt horrible. I’d murdered this poor, innocent creature. I stood up and took small comfort in watching the other Saddleback Caterpillar sail away on his leaf. Hopefully he landed safely somewhere.

To read about our original encounter with the Saddleback Caterpillar and learn more about this fascinating creature, see the Stinging Caterpillar blog post. It offers more photos including a Saddleback Caterpillar getting ready to pop a turd.

My sting, by the way, stopped hurting by the next day and I did not experience any of the other symptoms.

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Acharia Stimulea Saddleback Caterpillar Acharia Stimulea Saddleback Caterpillar
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Category: Wild Kingdom

Fuzzy White Caterpillar

August 26, 2010

Some bugs are easy to identify such as the Saddleback Caterpillar and Cow Killer Wasp, others are more difficult to identify such as this fuzzy white caterpillar. All four photos are of the same caterpillar from different angles and against different backgrounds.

Apatelodes torrefacta CaterpillarThere are quite a few different fuzzy white caterpillars and if you do a Google search you’ll discover that not only are there several very similar caterpillars, but that different websites will give you different identifications for the exact same species.

How does this happen? Not all websites are scientific. Some are hosted by entomologists (bug specialists), others are hosted by photographers, while others are blogs by folks who found an interesting bug that they want to talk about (like me).

Where it gets tricky is in how someone like me identifies a bug to blog about. In my research I found dozens of non-scientific websites posting a scientific name for this hairy white caterpillar. Most of them probably did a Google image search and took the info from the first photo they found that appeared to match even if that website was just another personal blog or photo sharing site.

Apatelodes torrefacta CaterpillarI’m a bit more particular about where I get my identifications from. First, I try to find the bug on websites that are dedicated to insect identification or entomology sites. Then I try to find it on educational websites and other websites that are on my research list. My goal is to find the bug identified by multiple trusted websites, not just one.

If it’s hard to identify as this particular caterpillar was, I also look for regional information. In other words if one species is only found in California and I am on the East Coast, mine is obviously not that species.

This hairy white caterpillar came up with two different identifications and I spent hours trying to make sure I used the right one. The first identification that came up was for Spilosoma virginica. Hours on the web shot it down. I just didn’t find credible sources to back it up. The Spilosoma virginica is a fuzzy white caterpillar but it has spiky hair which is straight and it doesn’t have the black tufts.

There were so many furry white caterpillars. Some had prominent black spots, some had black heads, and most had straight hair.

Apatelodes torrefacta CaterpillarMy hairy white caterpillar turned out to be Apatelodes torrefacta, the larva of the Spotted Apatelodes Moth. There are several identifying features. Its hair lays down instead of sticking up. The black spots are barely noticeable. It has two black antennae or tufts on one end and a single one on the opposite end. There is no prominent face and you cannot see its feet. Finally, there are tiny black hairs along its back; you can barely see them.

It is similar to the Acronicta americana except that the Acronicta americana caterpillar has shorter, spikier hair, too many long black tufts and is missing the two black tufts at one end. Another fuzzy white caterpillar is the Lophocampa caryae, except that it has very prominent black spots. Yet another is the Megalopyge crispata which has the long droopy hair but no black tufts. The hair on this last one is actually too long to match my caterpillar. These were just a few of the possibilities that came up.

The moral of the story is that if you are trying to identify a bug, be very careful in which websites you trust for information. Anyone can post a photo and slap a name on it and personal sites may not take the time to properly research their posts.

Apatelodes torrefacta CaterpillarA few other interesting facts about my caterpillar — the Apatelodes torrefacta — are that it can be bright white, off white or pale yellow. The tufts of the yellow variety are a brownish orange color. The view from underneath is really stunning except that I cannot verify this with my caterpillar as I did not flip him over to see. One photo that someone else took shows a yellowish body, with big black spots and neon orange feet. I would have loved to see it!

Another point of interest for the Apatelodes torrefacta is that it can have up to five broods in a year at 30-day intervals spanning an entire summer. Note that some sites specified only two broods. Five broods came from a posted PDF file that took its info from a book on North American Moths and another book specifically about this species of caterpillar. That sounded pretty official to me.

The Apatelodes torrefacta caterpillar is found from Ontario, Canada down to Florida and west to Texas and in parts of the Midwest. It prefers maple trees, oak trees, ash trees, and fruit trees such as plums, cherries, apricots, peaches and almonds.

The fuzzy white caterpillar is featured in the book “The Wizard of Awe: An Acre of America Backyard Nature Series” which is an expanded version of the Out Loud nature blog with photos and stories.

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Category: Wild Kingdom

Stinging Caterpillar

December 1, 2009

Only in Georgia do you find every manner of bizarre and nasty bug imaginable and our one acre seemed to house the worst of them. We’d found two inch long dung beetles, scorpions, black widows, Cow Killer wasps, fire ants, Arrowhead spiders, and other assorted bugs that bite, sting or are just interesting. This time it was a brightly colored caterpillar.

Acharia Stimulea Saddleback CaterpillarThe caterpillar was breathtaking with his vivid lime green blanket and well defined brown saddle ringed with white. The edges of the blanket had tufts of tan colored hairs or spines tipped with black. His horns were spiny, too, and he had two horns on both the front and back.

His rear end offered the perfect camouflage with two great big lime green eyes. Only they weren’t eyes, they were green spots designed to make his rear end look like his head to confuse predators. His rear end even had a mouth, making his fake face complete.

Acharia Stimulea Saddleback CaterpillarHaving discovered that the wonders of my own backyard made great blog entries, I ran for the camera. Our little Sony Cybershot took great photos and even movies with sound. The green and brown Saddleback Caterpillar did not disappoint except that I failed to get the movie I wanted.

As we watched his head, he puffed out what we thought was his throat and out popped a turd. We had witnessed a caterpillar pooping! And we realized that this was his rearend, not his head. Try as I might to get a movie of the Saddleback Caterpillar pooping, he didn’t do it for me again. I did, however, get several photos of his posterior in various stages before and after pooping. It was truly mesmerizing.

Saddleback Caterpillar getting ready to poop.
Acharia Stimulea Saddleback CaterpillarAcharia Stimulea Saddleback CaterpillarAcharia Stimulea Saddleback CaterpillarAcharia Stimulea Saddleback Caterpillar
Here comes the turd.

He wasn’t hard to find on the internet. My very first try was to type in Saddleback Caterpillar and I hit paydirt. Our caterpillar, scientifically known as Sibine stimulea or Acharia stimulea, would go on to become a plain brown moth with tiny white spots someday. But today he was of the family of slug caterpillars that are found in Eastern North America from Massachusetts down into Mexico and west to Missouri and Texas from June to August in the cooler climates and almost all year in the warmer climates such as Georgia. He was feeding on a thornless blackberry bush in September.

Acharia Stimulea Saddleback CaterpillarSaddleback Caterpillars feed on a wide variety of plants and trees. People have found them on trees such as cherry, oak, elm, plum, apple, poplar, chestnut, maple, redbud, crepe myrtles, dogwood, rose of sharon, banana trees and palms. Plants include corn, blackberries, blueberries, tomatoes, green beans, hydrangeas, azaleas, elephant ears, ivy, holly, amaryllis, irises, gladiolas and peonies. In other words you can find them on just about anything. More often than not they are found on the underside of leaves where you can brush up against them and be stung before you’ve even spotted them. Other common names include Packsaddle Caterpillar and Stinging Hair Caterpillar.

Acharia Stimulea Saddleback CaterpillarIn my quest to make him poop for the camera I came very close to touching him. Thank God I didn’t because the hairs are venomous and pack a nasty punch. Each hair has a poison sac at its base and the sting is reputed to be much like a wasp sting. The pain and swelling can last for days and is often accompanied by a rash, nausea, cold chills, sweating, headache, dizziness, tingling and numbness. One person described the pain as “burning like fire” and some folks experience heart palpitations.

Acharia Stimulea Saddleback CaterpillarUse cellophane tape to remove the stinging hairs. Ice packs help reduce pain and swelling and swimming in a chlorine pool helps to diffuse the venom. Any bee sting remedy such as Benadryl, Camphophenique or other treatments for bee and wasp stings may help but be prepared to suffer for days from the sting of this colorful brown and green caterpillar.

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