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What is eating my azalea?

I suspected the azalea caterpillar but after you brought in some clippings it became obvious.  The azalea caterpillar, Datana major, is found in Florida from July through October on azaleas. Often, the caterpillars completely defoliate much of the plant before they are detected. While the caterpillar appears hairy, it is harmless to humans and can be picked off the bushes by hand.

Nationwide, it is limited to the southeastern quarter of the United States as far north as Maryland. The caterpillars seem to prefer Indica azaleas, but have been reported on blueberry in Delaware, red oak in Maryland, and andromeda and apple in the mid-Atlantic states (Johnson and Lyon 1991). The adult moth is a medium brown color.

Hand picking the caterpillars is an option along with light pruning. They are gregarious, which means they will cluster together to feed. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) works well when the caterpillars are young but after they mature is of little use. You can find this in the insecticide section of your local garden centers.  For more complete information and more photos check out the University of Florida publication titled: “Azalea Caterpillar, Datana major Grote & Robinson (Insecta: Lepidoptera: Notodontidae)” http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/in294