Apr 19, 2024 - News

These 4 stinging caterpillars terrorize New Orleans

Photo shows four pictures of venomous caterpillars on leaves and other surfaces. There's a picture of a puss moth caterpillar, several IO moth caterpillars, a buckmoth caterpillars and a saddleback caterpillar.

Clockwise starting at the top left: The puss moth caterpillar's sting can send you to urgent care. The IO moth caterpillar usually comes out in the fall. The saddleback caterpillar has distinctive coloring. The buckmoth caterpillar is spiky and comes out in the spring. Photos: Zack Lemann, Audubon Insectarium

Be on high alert, New Orleans. This is the time of year when the dreaded buckmoth caterpillars fall from live oak trees.

Why it matters: Their stings are incredibly painful.

The big picture: Four venomous caterpillars are common in New Orleans metro, says Zack Lemann, the curator of animal collections at Audubon Insectarium.

  • The caterpillar forms of the buckmoth, puss moth, IO moth and saddleback have venomous spines and hairs that cause pain when touched.
  • The puss moth caterpillar, also called an asp, is the most venomous of the bunch.

Between the lines: New Orleans has other stinging caterpillars, but they aren't as common, Lemann says.

Yes, but: The fir or live oak Tussock moth caterpillar isn't venomous, Lemann says, even if it looks spiky.

  • It can cause an allergic reaction for some people, though.

State of play: Buckmoth caterpillars are the most common venomous critter this time of year in New Orleans, Lemann said, based on personal observations.

  • Buckmoth caterpillars make their homes in live oak trees and are often found on the ground under them.
  • They are normally out from March to May and then go below ground in June, he said.

Threat alert: Watch where you sit and wear gloves in the garden, Lemann said.

Meanwhile, dogs sometimes step on buckmoths and get stung, but it isn't common, Lemann said, based on his surveys of vets in the city.

Zoom in: The key is to learn to identify the caterpillars and then leave them alone, Lemann said.

  • "If you look at a puss moth, it looks like a bad mullet," he says.
  • The Tussock moth is very ornate, and other caterpillars differ in color.

What's next: Lemann is concerned last year's drought may have hurt or killed some of this generation of moths and butterflies.

  • He's in the process of doing field observations, he tells Axios.
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