How To Deal With Saddleback Caterpillars In Your Garden

Saddleback Caterpillar crawling on leaf In the Garden

Caterpillars can be pests in the garden, but did you know they can be dangerous. Some types of caterpillars like the Saddleback caterpillar (Acharya stimulea) have spines that can inflict a nasty sting. In most cases the sting is just a minor irritation, but in some instances stings can be very painful or even life threatening.

All of the stinging caterpillars come equipped with venomous spines that can break off and become embedded in your skin. Some of these caterpillars are not terribly dangerous and their spines just cause discomfort, a little redness and some itching.

Other types, such as the Puss Caterpillar (aka: asp caterpillar) deliver a dose of very severe neurotoxin which can cause tremendous pain, redness, swelling and even deadly allergic reactions. The severity of the response depends upon whether or not the victim is allergic to this particular toxin and/or to insect venom in general.

Another prime example of this sort of poisonous caterpillar is the Saddleback which turns into the saddleback moth. This critter is really amazing looking with bright colors, splashy markings and dangerous spikes. In this article, we will describe this garden pest and provide information to help you avoid it and deal with it. Read on to learn more.

Recognition Is Key – Identifying The Saddleback Caterpillar

It is important correctly identify stinging caterpillars and to know where to look for them. Because of so many different types, their locations and activities vary greatly.

Some types of stinging caterpillars stay in clusters and are easy to see, but others are solitary. Some eat only one kind of plant, so you always know where to find them. Others range far and wide and eat all sorts of things.

Exactly What Do Saddlebacks Look Like?

Species of saddleback caterpillars are about an inch long, and extremely brightly colored. The body is purplish brown with rosy pink tufts projecting from the sides and long, tufted horns of hairs in the front and rear.

The critter wears a fluorescent green “saddle” with a sporty white stripe along the bottom edge and a dark brown or purple circle, edged in white in the center of the back. There are also a few little white and yellow spots scattered about on the purple background of the body.

Saddleback caterpillars are fairly easy to spot because they are so brightly colored. This is a good thing because their caterpillar sting is extremely painful. You will find them throughout the eastern United States during the late summer and into the autumn.

They stay mostly on deciduous shrubs and trees, but watch out for them among tall grasses and corn plants.

Do Saddlebacks Cause Much Damage To Plants?

This species of caterpillar is one of a group of stinging caterpillars known as slug caterpillars. All members of this group are short, stubby and slow-moving. In fact, the puss caterpillar often appears affixed to the plants it eats and can be seen to sit in the same spot for days on end without moving.

This type of caterpillar usually stays on its own, rather than descending in a horde as do Army worms. Because they eat a wide variety of plants and are typically few in number, they don’t tend to cause much damage.

They grow up to be plain, dark brown, harmless Slug moths that provide food for birds, lizards, toads and other desirable garden fauna. For this reason, your best course of action when dealing with Saddleback caterpillars is to be vigilant and leave them alone so they will leave you alone.

What Happens If You Accidentally Touch A Saddleback Caterpillar?

If you feel the sting of this fuzzy caterpillar, you should act right away. Tweeze out any spines you can see and then put a piece of tape over the sting and pull it off to get out spines that you cannot see. You may need to do this several times.

Follow up with ice and/or cold compresses of a paste made of baking soda and cool water. This will help neutralize the venom and reduce swelling. Some people suggest applying ammonia to the sting will help relieve the pain.

Taking a dose of benadryl can also help reduce allergic reaction. If you are very allergic to insect stings, you seek medical attention at the emergency room right away.

What If Saddleback’s Become A Problem?

Of course, if you or others in your household suffer with allergies to insect stings, or if you notice Saddlebacks decided they are especially fond of your veggie garden, you may need to take measures to eradicate them.

In this case, take extra precautions to protect yourself and take steps to get them under control. Be sure to examine trees, bushes and plants where they have been seen on a regular basis. Wear appropriate protective clothing when doing your inspection.

Passive Control Of Caterpillars Is Safest

Just like other caterpillars, controlling Saddlebacks can be reduced in number by picking them off and dropping them into a bucket of soapy water, but you must exhibit extreme caution when doing this. Wear protective clothing, gloves and goggles.

A mouth and nose mask may also be in order because their spines can become airborne and inhaled. In fact, if one of these critters loses spines, they can remain embedded in porous surfaces and continue to be a contact hazard even after the caterpillar is long gone.

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Encouraging caterpillar predators in your yard allows you to take a hands-off approach. Some good choices include:

Treating with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) can also be helpful, as can spraying with insecticidal soap. Of these, Bt is preferable because it only affects caterpillars and does not harm beneficial fauna.

If you use Bt, be careful not to kill off your butterfly caterpillars, too! Target only plants where you have seen Saddlebacks.

Look, But Don’t Touch!

Even though stinging caterpillars can be dangerous, they still have a place in nature. Like other caterpillars, they are an excellent source of protein for birds and also for beneficial wasps. The best thing to do is be aware of them, watch out for them and wear protective clothing while pruning, gardening and doing other chores where you might encounter caterpillars.

Remember, caterpillars do not attack people, and they do not have sting hairs. Their sting comes from hollow spines filled with toxins. These are just a means of defense to help protect them against being eaten. If you do not brush up against them or touch them, you will not feel their sting; therefore, your wisest course of action is to avoid contact!

All-in-all, these dangerous little fellows are interesting and quite dashing. It is entirely possible to enjoy looking, just remember not to touch!

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