Fuzzy White CaterpillarAugust 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.
There 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.
I’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.
My 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.
A 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.
Category: Wild Kingdom