Wasps, spiders and bees inspire more fear. But that brilliantly colored caterpillar slinking up your hibiscus tree may pack the most painful venom.
Four caterpillar species found in South Florida bristle with spines that can deliver a dose of poison to would-be attackers. You’re likely to see more of them as the weather warms, eggs hatch and caterpillars try to survive the next few weeks to transform into butterflies and moths.
At the Florida Poison Information Center — Miami, where every kind of chemical, insect and reptile assault on human flesh has been encountered, 227 caterpillar calls were logged from South Florida over the past year, and they are considered among the most agonizing of afflictions.
“It’s a very painful sting,” said Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein, the center’s medical director. “We even see people pass out from the pain. We don’t see any deaths from it, but it is very painful, judging by the number of people that just are out-of-control hysterical when they call.”
Venomous species include the saddleback caterpillar, the puss caterpillar, the io caterpillar and the hag caterpillar. All four transform into moths, not butterflies.
Michael Stanwyck, of Pompano Beach, estimates he’s been stung a half dozen times growing up in Margate and working at a nursery. Having experienced the venom of both the saddleback and the io, he rates the saddleback the worst.
“It’s like somebody lit you on fire,” he said. “A bee sting times a hundred.”
For most callers to Poison Control, treatment at home involves placing Scotch tape over the afflicted area and stripping it off repeatedly to extract the spines. In rare cases, if there’s an allergic reaction, shortness of breath, vomiting or other symptoms, victims are urged to go to the hospital or call 911
The caterpillars use these venomous spines for defense against birds, lizards and other predators.
“If you’re a caterpillar, you have a very challenging life because everything wants to eat you,” said Jaret Daniels, assistant professor of entomology at the University of Florida and assistant curator of the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera Biodiversity. “You’re out there on the plant, and you’re a big, fleshy meal.”
Less than 2 percent of butterfly and moth larvae survive to adulthood, he said, and he urged homeowners to coexist with them.
Just because caterpillars can sting, “it doesn’t mean you should spray your garden and try to get rid of them,” Daniels said. “They’re pretty cool looking. They’re really attractive, interesting organisms. They’re not trying to hurt you. They’re doing it to avoid being eaten.”
An io caterpillar nailed Tracie Terrell and a friend on her walkway in Deerfield Beach, when they both unwittingly brushed it with their hands.
“It was intense burning and itching and the area turned red and swelled,” Terrell said. “The pain was comparable to a bee sting, but it was itchy, too, and spread over a larger area.”
They went back and found the caterpillar, bristly bright green with red stripes.
“I didn’t have the heart to kill it even though it got us good,” she said. “Such a unique and colorful little guy.”
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Less common than other species. Named for its disheveled hair. Also called the monkey slug. Found on forest trees and ornamental shrubs.
Common in South Florida. Found on ixora and rose plants.
Has stiff spines attached to venom glands. The spines break off in the skin. Found most often on oak and citrus trees.
Has brown spot that looks likes a saddle. Feeds on hibiscus trees, palm trees and many other plants.
If you’re stung
Place Scotch tape over the area and strip off repeatedly to remove spines. Apply ice packs for pain, and then a paste of baking soda and water. If you have a history of hay fever, asthma or allergies, or if allergic reactions develop, seek medical attention. You can also call Miami Poison Control at 800-222-1222.
Sources: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Florida Poison Information Center — Miami.