Don’t Touch!

Hickory Tussock Moth (photo by Kate St. John)
Hickory Tussock Moth (photo by Kate St. John)

This caterpillar is almost as cute as a Woolly Bear (Isabella tiger moth) with his fluffy white fur, a black dash down his back, and a little black face, but…

Hickory Tussock Moth (photo by Kate St. John)
Hickory Tussock Moth (photo by Kate St. John)

Don’t touch him!

This is a hickory tussock moth caterpillar (Lophocampa caryae) and those long white hairs contain allergens that will make you sting and itch as if you’d touched stinging nettle.

The hairs are actually hollow spines, the perfect delivery system for chemicals that prevent him from being eaten.  Even a clueless young animal will only mouth this caterpillar once.  Inquisitive humans who’ve touched him will tell you the spines can stay in your skin and make you miserable for weeks.

And don’t touch his cocoon either.  It’s covered with the same nasty hairs.   Click here to see his cocoon.

Hickory tussock moth caterpillars are easy to find right now because they’re preparing to spin the cocoons where they’ll overwinter.

Here’s another view so you can memorize his appearance.

Hickory Tussock Moth (photo by Kate St. John)
Hickory Tussock Moth (photo by Kate St. John)

Follow this simple rule about caterpillars and you can’t go wrong:  Look but don’t touch!

(photos by Kate St.John)

p.s. Read more about hickory tussock moths in this entertaining article by the Bug Lady at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

12 thoughts on “Don’t Touch!

  1. I found one of these in the grass yesterday. I didn’t want to step on him accidentally, so I moved him. Thank you for the i.d. and warning. So glad I had gardening gloves on!

    What type of tussock caterpillar is commonly found on milkweeds earlier in the season? I think it is black, white and orange.

  2. We have these in our yard frequently, probably since we have hickory trees on our property. A few weeks ago we had an IO moth caterpillar on one of the day lily leaves. Very striking but we quickly figured out we shouldn’t touch him either (that one is also pictured on the page that you pointed to for Carol). Spiny caterpillars are usually best left alone!

  3. We’ve been seeing these all summer and my kids were playing with them! We didn’t notice any stinging. Is there a similar variety that we might be seeing? Any other explanation for why we haven’t felt the stinging?

  4. I got stung in the neck by one of these little fellas! The only reason I know this is because I killed him as I swatted at the stinking! The sting is intense I must say! Don’t know how he got on my neck but he did!

  5. A caterpillar can’t really “sting” you like a bee or wasp…it’s more like their hairs fall off and linger on your skin. Also I’ve handled many caterpillars before and can’t recall ever getting a rash from this one (although my skin isn’t that sensitive, I don’t develop allergic reactions and I’ve handled them responsibly). However I am wondering if their diet makes them more or less poisonous?

  6. Some people are more sensitive to the hairs…rule of thumb if it’s spiny or fuzzy, don’t pick it up unless you know it’s safe…I tell this to kids esp….heard on the news it was in central PA and came down from Canada…they have always been here…saw 2 in the yard today and I wasn’t looking for them…

    I mowed grass today and lots of leaves have fallen…colors are changing and it’s pretty out….it’s fall and nice there are flowers to enjoy since no frost yet!!!!

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