This past year, I was having trouble getting good shots of birds hidden in foliage so, inspired by fellow contributors to Project Noah, I tried my hand at photographing more insects. This opened up another fascinating wildlife world to me and I’ve been learning about different species of flies, bees, hoppers, and moths.
I had always thought of butterflies as the “beauties” of the insect kingdom but found out that the moths can be simply stunning (another blog to come). Moth caterpillars are really interesting, too – and there are so many kinds with fuzzy bodies. At an early stage, their hairs or bristles (setae) may be short, as seen in this pale tiger moth; as they grow, the setae become longer like those in the dark tiger moth.
The Sycamore tussock moth caterpillar (Halysidota harrisii) is a fancy variety, with hairs that give its face a bit of an “old man” look (droopy mustaches). Though not considered one of the stinging caterpillars (read on to find out about them), the hairs have been known to cause hives if a person touches them. If one lands on you, use a twig or leaf to remove it gently.
Two caterpillars have been nicknamed woolly bears. The Virginia tiger moth (Spilosoma virginica) caterpillar, which can vary widely in color, is known as the yellow woolly bear in its pale color variation.
The banded woolly bear caterpillar of the Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia Isabella) even has whole festivals devoted to it in places like Banner Elk, a mountain town in North Carolina. There is a myth that if this caterpillar has a thick brown stripe, the winter will be mild; if the brown stripe is narrow, we will have a severe winter. This year, I saw caterpillars with narrow and wide stripes, so I wonder what it will be.
The Fall webworm moth caterpillar (Hyphantria cunea) is especially well-known for the communal webbed nests that they create on shrubs and in trees. They can vary in color from yellow to gray with two light stripes along their sides. The adult moth is a beauty; in the northern states, it is mostly white but in the South it can have dark spots on its fore-wings.
Some of the hairy caterpillars are known as “stinging caterpillars”. They do not inject venom like bees and wasps but their hollow hairs contain toxins, which are designed to protect them from predators. When another being – including humans – brushes against the hairs, they break away and release the toxin. This can cause varying reactions, including mild to intense burning, stinging pain and itching. Depending on the species, a person might also experience rashes, swelling and inflammation, numbness and even fever and nausea. The reactions can be especially serious for people with sensitive skin and allergies.
I didn’t know about this until this year; fortunately, I did not pick up any of the stinging caterpillars since I try not to disturb the creatures I photograph. That was a good decision when I came across the Saddleback moth caterpillar (Acharia stimulea), which is quite an eye-catching individual. This slug-type caterpillar isn’t quite as hairy as some other species but causes some of the more severe reactions. I hope to find some new hairy caterpillars next year!
Next blog: Weaver bird nests