Stinging Caterpillars

Some caterpillars will hurt you, far more than the trees they eat!

By: Sandy Feather ©2015
Penn State Extension

Q. Can you tell me what kind of caterpillar this is? I found it eating the leaves on a young oak tree planted this spring. I was worried that it would damage the young tree. After I picked it off, my hand started to really hurt, but I don’t think it bit me.

A. The writer attached a picture of a hickory tussock moth caterpillar (Lophocampa caryae). This is a native species, found from Nova Scotia to North Carolina and west to Ontario, Wisconsin and Texas. In addition to oaks, they are frequently found feeding on ash, elm, hickory, maple and other trees. While these caterpillars can eat a great deal of foliage, they generally are not considered life-threatening for trees. This is because they feed late in the growing season when trees have already set their buds. Also, the trees will soon be losing their leaves for the onset of winter.


Insects that cause defoliation early in the growing season, such as gypsy moth caterpillars, are much more cause for concern, because trees respond by sending out a second flush of leaves. This uses up their carbohydrate reserves because it requires a great deal of energy to leaf out a second time in a single season. When trees are defoliated in spring for three or four consecutive years, they often die because they have no carbohydrate reserves left.

Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar
Watch for this one!

Your hand hurt because many species of caterpillars – including hickory tussock moth and gypsy moth – are clothed in stinging hairs to protect them from predators. As much as your hand hurt, can you imagine what would happen to the unwary bird that tried to eat one? As a rule of thumb, avoid handling furry caterpillars because many are armed with such stinging hairs.

To sooth the reddening, swelling and discomfort, use ice and/or calamine lotion. More sensitive individuals may need to visit a physician.


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