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Thursday, September 3, 2015
Cute, yes. Cuddly? No. The Hickory tussock caterpillar should not be
When it comes to kids and Mother Nature, the younger they are, the more hands-on they are. While a teenager might be grossed out by any number of creepy-crawlies (like nightcrawlers or cicadas), little ones will gladly pick them up.

In most cases on the Niagara Frontier, they can do that safely. It’s not like we’re dealing with scorpions or tarantulas around here. Nonetheless, caution is advised, because irritations and dangers can come from even the most innocent looking creatures — consider the caterpillar of the hickory tussock moth.

The caterpillar looks harmless at first glance. It’s quite attractive, a hairy little bundle of white with a stripe of black hairs along the back mixed a couple tufts of longer black hairs (those tufts lend to the name “tussock”).

Any toddler or youngster who has ever picked up a wooly bear caterpillar would probably feel compelled to pick up one of these caterpillars, too, after all, wooly bear encounters go without incident and one might even say those alleged predictors of winter (a column for another day) are cute.

If a kid picks up a hickory tussock caterpillar, things won’t go so well. The hairs of the caterpillar are barbed (like porcupine quills) and will break off of the caterpillar and embed in your skin. Making matters worse, the longer hairs are connected to small poison glands. All of the hairs, and especially those with venom, will lead to skin irritation.

The issues caused by the hairs can best be compared to reactions to nettle or poison ivy – the skin will swell or bubble up and itch. For some it will be bothersome, for others, especially small children or those hypersensitive to the toxin, it will be painful and require much scratching. Some folks will experience nausea or headaches, but that is rare.

What makes the caterpillar’s defenses such a struggle with children is the fact that they are always putting things or their hands in their mouths or rubbing their eyes (the latter is guaranteed if they start crying over the poisonous hairs being stuck in their hands and wrists). Those activities only make things worse.

I read one report about a baby who was playing in her yard, picked up a caterpillar and then got dozens of the hairs in her mouth and on her tongue and she wouldn’t (couldn’t) eat for two days. Rubbing the eyes can be just as painful — I’m sure no one wants barbed hairs in or behind their eyelids. That would be agonizing.

If you or your child comes in contact with a hickory tussock caterpillar, immediately wash hands and wrists with soap and water. If it is too late and the hairs have taken root, you will have to battle the discomfort for 1 to 2 days. The irritation can be lessened by taking antihistamines or using calamine lotion. You could even try to use tape to pull the hairs out.

This is certainly something to be aware of this summer. This may be one of the “best” years for hickory tussock moths in quite some time. I don’t remember ever seeing as many of the caterpillars as I have this past month. They seem to be everywhere, especially where nut-bearing trees are found. The caterpillars have been busy eating the leaves of hickory, beech, oak, butternut and black walnut.

So, my advice is this: be on the lookout and be careful and make sure your kids are, too. Hickory tussock caterpillars might look cute and cuddly — they can be anything but.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where the rule is, “don’t touch hairy caterpillars.” Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

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