We encountered our first Saddleback Caterpillar two years ago. We turned the caterpillar into a photo opp and added him to the blog after doing some research and finding out how nasty his stingers could be. Thankfully we had not touched the caterpillar as the sting is reputed to “burn like fire” with pain that can last for days. Side effects of a Saddleback Caterpillar sting can include nausea, dizziness, a rash, sweating, cold chills, tingling, numbness, and possibly even heart palpitations.
Every hair on the Saddleback Caterpillar has a poison sac at the base so brushing up against one of these beauties can produce a multitude of stings. It’s not that the caterpillar goes out of his way to sting you; he’s a rather slow-moving slug caterpillar who mostly just sits in one place. Known scientifically as Acharia stimulea or Sibine stimulea, the Saddleback Caterpillar can be found almost year-round in warm climates such as we have in Georgia. His range extends from Massachusetts all the way down into Mexico, and in the cooler climates you’ll likely see him from June through August. Like our encounter two years ago, today’s encounter was in September. Unlike two years ago, this time he stung me.
As part of my fall gardening, I was cutting down some three-foot tall orange lilies that grow on thick stalks filled with a milky white sap. A sudden sharp pain shot into my pinky finger and immediately spread all the way up my arm. The pain was fierce and it did indeed burn like fire. It was as if someone had poured scalding hot water up my arm.
I did not yet know the cause, whether it was an insect or whether the milky sap was somehow responsible. Either way I needed to eliminate the poison as quickly as possible so I ran inside, washed my hand with liquid dish soap, then washed it again with a bar of Octagon Soap that we kept handy to wash off poison ivy oils. My pinky finger was burning like the dickens and I still had pain going up the side of my hand and higher up my arm.
I wondered if some insect had stung me more than once as I reached down into the tall flowers. Though I couldn’t see any type of a stinger sticking out, I’d read that scraping with a credit card was effective for removing cactus hairs so I grabbed a business card and scraped my finger. My husband grows hundreds of cactus plants so cactus hair removal is a given in our house and it was all I could think of to do. Scraping the area actually did seem to help a little but the best suggestion to remove Saddleback Caterpillar hairs is to use sticky tape.
I told my husband that something had stung me but I didn’t know what. My theory was a wasp sting, wondering if I’d encountered a Cow Killer Wasp or a scorpion. I’d never had a sting result in pain shooting two feet from the original sting so I figured something nastier than normal had stung me. We’d found Cow Killer Wasps and scorpions in the past so either was a potential culprit. I also considered a Saddleback Caterpillar as we’d previously found one of them as well.
My husband offered a different theory — one which threw me into a total panic. What if it were a spider bite? We’d also spotted a Black Widow spider a couple years earlier and now the fear of a medical emergency took hold. I had to find out what stung me.
The last thing I said to my husband before going on a hunting trip in the garden was that a Saddleback Caterpillar sting at least wouldn’t kill you, so of all the really nasty options, a Saddleback sting would have been preferable to a Black Widow spider bite. The first place I looked for the culprit was in the garbage can I’d been throwing the garden waste into and there I spotted a Saddleback Caterpillar, still sitting happily on the lily I’d just cut down.
At least now I knew what had stung me. While it hurt like hell, I could stop worrying about a death march or a trip to the hospital. I spent the next several hours either photographing the Saddleback Caterpillar or looking to see if he had siblings nearby. Photos on the internet often showed several caterpillars huddled together so I knew it was a strong likelihood that there’d be more of the Saddleback Caterpillars in the same garden bed.
While I did not find a whole nest of Saddleback Caterpillars, I did find one more. He was a bit bigger than the first and about two feet away, feeding on my Black-Eyed Susans. Once I’d taken several photos and exhausted the search for more of these colorful, lime green caterpillars with a brown saddle on their backs, I debated the fate of the two I’d found. The original Saddleback Caterpillar of two years ago was left to his own devices, where he promptly went on to be fruitful and multiply. Did I really want to let them multiply for future encounters to sting me again?
I struggled with the decision. I hate killing creatures of nature with a few exceptions. Fleas, mosquitos, cockroaches, rats, mice, ants, and termites are among the exceptions. Any creature who goes out of its way to attack you, feed on you or your pets, or damage your home, are on my hit list and will soon find their demise. Innocent creatures going about their business and not seeking you out, they fall into a different category of God’s creatures and I don’t generally kill them.
My conscience struggled, finally coming to the decision to relocate the Saddleback Caterpillars. My method of relocation probably wouldn’t have met with the approval of my neighbors. I took them down to the lake intending to set them asail, each on his own leaf where they’d at least have a chance to land somewhere off of our property. The first caterpillar went off on his leaf and as far as I know, he had a good chance of landing somewhere. I watched him sailing away for a long time.
The second Saddleback Caterpillar, however, was not as cooperative. I could not get him onto a leaf. I laid a leaf down next to him and he wanted no part of it. I nudged him with a piece of pine straw but instead of moving away from the pine straw onto the leaf, the caterpillar curled around as if trying to sting the pine straw. I was fascinated by his spunk. Every time I tried to nudge him, he did not fail to curl every stinger into the intruding object.
We did battle for several minutes with his stubborn refusal to crawl onto the leaf. Then we had an accident and he went off the edge of the dock and into the water. NOOOoooo! That wasn’t my intention! I threw the leaf down next to him hoping he’d latch onto it but he still wanted no part of that leaf, even to save his own life. I ran and got a stick hoping that would do it for him but by then it was too late. The Saddleback Caterpillar didn’t seem to have any will to latch onto anything. He rolled around on top of the water for a few brief seconds and then went still. Apparently, caterpillars drown much the same way we do.
I made one last ditch effort to give him a stick to grab hold of but his lifeless body sank down into the water. I watched his lime green carcass as it sank all the way to the bottom of the lake. I wondered if a fish would try to eat the dead caterpillar and if so, would the fish experience the stingers as I had? I felt horrible. I’d murdered this poor, innocent creature. I stood up and took small comfort in watching the other Saddleback Caterpillar sail away on his leaf. Hopefully he landed safely somewhere.
To read about our original encounter with the Saddleback Caterpillar and learn more about this fascinating creature, see the Stinging Caterpillar blog post. It offers more photos including a Saddleback Caterpillar getting ready to pop a turd.
My sting, by the way, stopped hurting by the next day and I did not experience any of the other symptoms.
An Acre of America Backyard Nature Series for Adults
Back Yard Nature Kids Books
Get me on t-shirts, mugs, hats, keychains,
greeting cards and more!