Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Are Fuzzy Caterpillars Safe To Touch?

It is true, that it is not wise to pick up a fuzzy caterpillar with your bare hands! Usually if the caterpillar has hairs or is brightly colored, they can harm you. These features are meant to protect them from predators. If a predator such as a bird or lizard eats a fuzzy or brightly colored insect, it either tastes bad, gives the predator an upset stomach, or hurts the predator in some other way. This causes the predator to avoid eating another one in the future. Some fuzzy caterpillars such as the Woolly Bears and Tussock Moth Caterpillars have urticating hairs. These hairs can irritate the digestive tract of their predators, and can irritate your skin feeling like fine cactus needles. Puss caterpillars or Asps are more painful when touched. They are blonde in color and extremely hairy. These caterpillars have poison glands that produce an itchy skin rash when touched and hypersensitive individuals may require medical attention.

Puss caterpillar or "asp", Megalopyge opercularis (J. E. Smith) (Lepidoptera: Megalopygidae). Photo by Bart Drees, Professor and Extension Entomologist, Texas A&M University.

Monday, June 21, 2010

What Is Making You Itch This Summer?

As we enjoy the warm outdoors, we need to protect ourselves from a small red mite, also know as a chigger. Chiggers develop through four lifestages: egg, larva, nymph and adult. Six-legged larvae hatch from the eggs and climb up onto vegetation, so they can crawl onto a passing host. This is the only stage that feeds on humans and animals. Chigger larvae prefer to bite people in places where clothing fits tightly over the skin such as around the waistline, under socks, or where the skin is thin or creased such as around the ankles or the back of knees. Chigger larvae insert their mouthparts into a skin pore or hair follicle, and then inject a digestive fluid to dissolve skin cells. This results in itchy, reddish welts on the skin. After feeding, the larvae drop off of the host to molt into eight-legged nymphs which then molt into adults. Chigger nymphs and adults feed on eggs of springtails, isopods, and mosquitoes. Under favorable conditions, most chiggers complete their development from egg to adult in 40 to 70 days.

Suggestions for Prevention:

Avoid sitting on the ground when camping, picnicking, or working outdoors. Wear tightly woven socks, long pants, long sleeved shirts, and high shoes. Also tuck pant legs inside boots and button cuffs and collars as tightly as possible to prevent chiggers from climbing inside your clothes. Apply repellents such as DEET or permethrin to both the skin and clothing. Powdered sulfur is another repellent that can be dusted around the opening of your pants, socks, and boots or rubbed on skin such as over legs, arms and waist.

Suggestions for relief after exposure to chiggers:
Wash clothes in hot, soapy water to kill chigger larvae. Take a hot bath or shower and soap repeatedly after chigger exposure. Creams or ointments such as hydrocortisone or calamine lotion can be applied to relieve itching temporarily.

Suggestions for Use of Insecticides:
Chiggers sometimes become a problem in home lawns, so chemical control may be desirable. Insecticide sprays may provide some temporary reduction of chiggers and they are effective when applied in areas where chiggers and their animal hosts are living and/or roaming. Insecticides containing carbaryl, permethrin, cyfluthrin are some suggestions for control.

Photo of chigger bites. Photo by Michael Merchant, Professor and Extension Entomologist, Texas A&M University.