Our early warm weather is bringing out more than bathing suits and sunscreen this year. The Center for Disease Control has noted an uptick in calls about stinging caterpillars in Florida. The four species most commonly encountered in nurseries and landscapes are the Saddleback caterpillar, Sabine stimulea; Puss caterpillar, Megalopyge opercularis; Hag caterpillar, Phobetron pithecium; and Io caterpillar, Automeris io. These moth caterpillars feed on a variety of ornamental trees and shrubs including oaks, palms, citrus, roses, hibiscus and ixora.
The caterpillars do not possess stingers, but have spines that are connected to poison glands. Some people experience severe reactions to the poison released by the spines and require medical attention. Others experience only an itching or burning sensation.
Caterpillars of the tussock moth, Orgyia leucostigma, lack poison glands but its hairs can still produce an allergic reaction. Avoid the brown fuzzy cocoon since stinging hairs are there as well. It is best to cover up with gloves and long sleeves before removing the cocoons with a stick and placing them in the trash. Since the female lays her eggs in empty cocoons, getting rid of them helps keep populations in check.
UF Entomologist Eileen Buss has heard reports of numerous tussock moths around Tampa and as far north as Jacksonville. “Outbreaks seem to be cyclical. I haven’t seen it this bad since 2001,” Buss said.
First aid: Place Scotch tape over the affected area and strip off repeatedly to remove spines. Apply ice packs to reduce the stinging sensation, and follow with a paste of baking soda and water or over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream. If the victim has a history of hay fever, asthma or allergy, or if allergic reactions develop, contact a physician immediately.