From dark green to bright red, the photinia bushes surrounding my patio offer colorful arrangements for the litany of wildlife that enjoys them, including me.
But now I have to warn people to stay away from the shrubs, to avoid touching them unless absolutely necessary.
They’re full of these enticing critters:
Cute and cuddly, what with all that soft hair styled so eloquently, who wouldn’t want to pick up such a beast, hold it and pet it like a kitten?
I mean: Aren’t faux-hawks in style right now? If so, we certainly should appreciate an insect who displays such a hairdo.
But that would be a very bad mistake. These caterpillars are the larvae of the southern flannel moth.
They go by many names: pussy moth and puss caterpillar, southern flannel moth, Megalopyge opercularis and Bolivia bug.
In Texas they have an additional moniker that should clarify things a bit. Residents of the Lone Star State call them asps.
Tucked beneath all those curly locks rests an arsenal of poisonous spines. The toxin released by simply brushing against the fur is of such potency that it can cause excruciating pain, shortness of breath, burning sensations, nausea and abdominal pain, blisters, rashes, headaches, numbness, chest pain, and a veritable smorgasbord of other symptoms.
In not so uncertain terms, the sting of this insect causes severe reactions upon contact, reactions seldom localized to the actual site of interaction.
To inflict pain, they don’t have to be alive and they can be pupating. The toxin and delivery spines are equally dangerous under all circumstances.
In fact—and certainly in the most wise of evolutionary standards—this caterpillar does not spin a cocoon in order to become a moth. On the contrary, it separates from its outer skin and pupates under the protection of its larval defenses. Aren’t they clever?
They intentionally remain on the underside of a leaf while eating. I’m sure this simple hiding mechanism helps protect them from predators. It certainly protects them from my prying eyes and camera lenses.
I hope that abundant juveniles now means I can enjoy seeing the adults later. Southern flannel moths are beautiful, mysterious creatures.
[Note] Let me reiterate once again what I’ve always said: People should not touch any plant or animal unless they know for certain that it’s safe. These caterpillars are a perfect example. While intriguing, they pose a serious threat to anyone trying to handle them.
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 Both nicknames undoubtedly stem from the apparent likeness between this insect’s fur and that of a Persian cat: full of fluff and curl, a chic and sophisticated coif.
 An asp is a small venomous snake. It is thought that such a viper caused the death of Cleopatra.
 A rigid bristle of hair on such creatures is called a seta. Collectively, one could say this caterpillar is covered with setae. This technically is not hair, but it’s still a respectable coif nonetheless.
 Due to their abundance and in no small part their intentionally remaining underneath the leaves while feeding, capturing images of these beauties has been difficult. My best approach has been to push the camera into the shadows while keeping my hands free from contact. Even holding the limb down to create a better view for that last photograph required serious inspection and careful handling. The best pictures I could manage came from watching them maneuver from leaf to leaf by way of the limbs.
 If you look closely at the last photo (especially the largest size), you’ll see the underside of the leaf is covered with a layer of the caterpillar’s setae. It’s likely that shedding also contains a number of toxic spines. That’s yet another reason why I’ve not manhandled the photinias in order to get a better view for the camera.
 I had an e-mail several months ago from a gentleman here in Texas who was seeking guidance on a large caterpillar he found on an outside wall, a sizable beast with black spiny hair and red rings (sound familiar?). Because he was unsure whether or not it was safe to handle, he used a stick to roll the large behemoth out of danger and away from people. Afterward, he wanted to know what it was and if it posed a threat. Luckily for him, his visitor was harmless. Still, he used sound judgment when dealing with it: Don’t touch what you don’t understand!