October 10, 2014
Photos by Kathy Kinsey
By Kathy Kinsey
Looking like a miniature Yorkie sporting his new Christmas blanket, the saddleback caterpillar is not as innocent as it looks. It is actually quite a nasty little guy and has a sting that will leave you wondering what on earth was that along with a few other choice descriptive words. And the saddleback is not the only caterpillar that will sting you for there are more than 50 other species out there but for this article, it is all about the saddleback caterpillar, a cute little guy sporting a colorful blanket!
The saddleback caterpillar, (Acharia stimulea) (Clemens) is a slug caterpillar and is the larvae stage of a moth that is native to the eastern portion of North America. The adult is an unassuming, stout bodied moth with dark brown wings, nothing as cute and colorful as the larvae, which is primarily green with brown on both ends. The “saddle” is green with a white ringed brown dot located right in the middle of the saddle. There are two fleshy, tufted horns at the front and end of the caterpillar. But while it may be as cute as a button, this little caterpillar, and it is small, has spines that secrete a most irritating venom which causes a painful, swollen rash and some humans may experience nausea. These spines can also become airborne adhering to clothing so make sure any clothing is removed that may have come into contact with the spines. Not doing so will only prolong the agony of the sting.
Now should you have the misfortune of coming into contact with the saddleback, it is most important that you remain calm, as venom travels faster if you are moving frantically around, and then remove the spines from your skin immediately. You can check the IFAS website on how best to handle this sting. Some sites suggest the use of tape to remove the spines but not everyone has tape in their arsenal but most of us have a knife handy, usually a pocket knife. Once these spines have been removed, wash the area with soapy water, rub the area with alcohol and then follow this with a cream such as Benadryl, Calamine lotion or Cortizone. In a few hours, you should be able to continue on with your day. If you have allergies to insect bites or stings, you may want to seek immediate help from your physician or your local hospital. I will tell you this sting in not nearly as irritating as others I have had. It is just amazing what is out there that will wreck your day but with enough information, you can have a great day outside because just knowing what is out there will help you have a sting-free day. Just because they are out there does not mean you need to be a victim.
Saddlebacks tend to feed on a host of plants – from tropical plants such banana trees and gingers to blueberries. Though in my yard, they have a fondness for my banana trees. I have also seen them on my red ginger plants and just last year on a pumelo grapefruit tree. The most I ever saw in one area was on a bird-of-paradise plant. There must have been a dozen of the little guys all over it. Their spines were all over me before I could finish mowing that area. I was surprised by this because I had just mowed around this plant the week before with no problems. As they have an adhesive property that allows them to attach to the underneath part of a leaf, you need to be mindful of where your face is in conjunction with the leaves in your garden. Don’t let this little caterpillar ruin the day you have planned gardening. The best thing you can do is be careful where you work. Look under the leaves of any tropical plants you have in your garden for this little guy. And this not only applies to the saddleback for I have found wasps building nests under banana tree leaves as well. Getting stung by a wasp or this saddleback can ruin a day in the garden. But remember, if you are stung by any insect, remain calm. Then seek the medical attention you need, either home applied or by your physician. Just be prepared and take the necessary precautions so you can enjoy your day in the garden without adding a few new words to your vocabulary!
Though I can’t locate any real benefit for this caterpillar, I have learned a lot from this little guy. As the birds have learned, I, too, have learned any insect that has this much color to it can’t be good. I catch myself looking under every leaf now just to make sure nothing is hanging out there that will sting. I keep my spray bottle that is full of soapy water with me. I keep a close eye on all my gourds for anything other than birds using them. I try to keep kids out of my garden so they are not stung and I wear gloves and shoes more now than I ever did. If the soap doesn’t get them, my shoes will because no insect is going to keep me from gardening and hopefully the same will go for you.
And just one more note. If your child brings one of these home in a glass jar and asked if they can keep it, I strongly suggest you find them another pet because this one is not worth hugging. I will leave you to take care of the little guy but I certainly know what I would do with it!
Kathy Kinsey is a Master Gardener volunteer with the UF/Leon County Cooperative Extension Service. For more information about saddlebacks (Acharia stimulea) or gardening in our area, visit our website at http://leon.ifas.ufl.edu . You may also email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov with any gardening questions you may have.