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Hairy caterpillars and skin irritations: what’s the real story?

Hickory tussock moth caterpillar (Lophocampa caryae)
Credit: Insectarium de Montréal (Maxim Larrivée)
Hickory tussock moth caterpillar (Lophocampa caryae)
  • Hickory tussock moth caterpillar (Lophocampa caryae)
  • White-marked tussock moth (Orgyia leucostigma)
Hairy caterpillars and skin irritations: what’s the real story?

Caterpillars are enormously popular with children. They’re attractive, accessible, don’t sting and don’t bite. They put up with being handled, and offer the possibility of multiple discoveries. Nevertheless, a lot of people out there ask us if their children can touch them. Here are some guidelines.

Touching with the fingers?

The very great majority of caterpillars that we find in Québec can be handled in complete safety. However, the hair on some species, including those on the hickory tussock moth caterpillar (Lophocampa caryae) or the white-marked tussock moth caterpillar (Orgyia leucostigma), can cause skin irritations, although these are temporary. The same goes for the cocoons woven by these caterpillars, since the creatures often incorporate their hairs in the silk of the protective jackets. It’s therefore preferable to avoid all contact and to use a stick for handling and observing these insects up close.

To each his own reaction!

The extent of a skin reaction depends not only on the presence of urticating hairs but also on individual sensitivity, on specific allergies and on the contact area. Mucous membranes in the oral cavity, for example, are highly sensitive, and young children should therefore be kept from putting caterpillars in their mouths. If they do, applying ice will reduce the reaction. It’s also very possible for one child to react more than another. In addition, some of us may develop various skin symptoms when we touch caterpillars that other people handle without any negative consequences.

Observing caterpillars: a healthy curiosity!

When children play with a caterpillar, they’re stimulating their curiosity, developing essential connections with nature and taming their fears. Certain caterpillars have difficulty attracting attention because they imitate perfectly the shape and color of a leaf, a stem, or bird droppings. A trick in observing them is to get them to fall on a light-colored sheet by gently shaking the branches of a tree or the stems of a plant.

And then, what a pleasure to see these funny little beasts transform into butterflies. Raising caterpillars enables us not just to witness that extraordinary phenomenon, but also to learn a lot about the life style of these familiar and exciting creatures. Pay close attention and clearly identify the leaves that your caterpillar feeds on in nature. Afterwards make sure it has a good supply of them as long as it’s in captivity. Happy discoveries!

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