Stay away from the photinias

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.

Why?

They’re full of these enticing critters:

A southern flannel moth caterpillar (a.k.a. pussy moth, Bolivia bug, puss caterpillar or asp; Megalopyge opercularis) climbing over a branch (20080810_10851)

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[1], 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[2].

A southern flannel moth caterpillar (a.k.a. pussy moth, Bolivia bug, puss caterpillar or asp; Megalopyge opercularis) crawling along a branch (20080810_10841)wid

Tucked beneath all those curly locks[3] 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.

A southern flannel moth caterpillar (a.k.a. pussy moth, Bolivia bug, puss caterpillar or asp; Megalopyge opercularis) crawling along a branch (20080810_10843)

In not so uncertain terms, the sting of this insect causes severe reactions upon contact, reactions seldom localized to the actual site of interaction.

A southern flannel moth caterpillar (a.k.a. pussy moth, Bolivia bug, puss caterpillar or asp; Megalopyge opercularis) climbing down a branch (20080810_10833)

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?

A southern flannel moth caterpillar (a.k.a. pussy moth, Bolivia bug, puss caterpillar or asp; Megalopyge opercularis) clinging to the underside of a leaf as it eats (20080807_10421)

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[4].

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[6].  These caterpillars are a perfect example.  While intriguing, they pose a serious threat to anyone trying to handle them.

— — — — — — — — — —

[1] 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.

[2] An asp is a small venomous snake.  It is thought that such a viper caused the death of Cleopatra.

[3] 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.

[4] 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[5] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] 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!

10 thoughts on “Stay away from the photinias”

  1. Very interesting!! Awsesome pictures! Sounds 10 times worse than the little ole scorpion that I found in my bathroom under a rubber mat.

    Even though “something” eats the leaves on our photinias, I have never seen anything like you described. Must be a Texas problem. We live in southern Oregon. Of course we know that Texas has a LOT of scary, thorny stuff compared to what we have!

    Phyllis Backus

    1. Thanks for visiting, Phyllis! Your compliment on the photos is greatly appreciated. I had to laugh at your comment about Texas having a lot of scary stuff.

      And yes, the sting of this caterpillar is quite dangerous. As cute as they are, they demand a great deal of respect–and distance. But you’re safe up there in Oregon as this species doesn’t live there.

    1. Thanks for visiting and commenting, Angie!

      This has been a good year for this species. I’ve seen news reports that the caterpillars are being found all over North Texas, and in large numbers too.

      You were wise not to touch it. In many cases that will just cause blistering of the skin and localized pain, but you can never tell ahead of time if you’re going to have a worse reaction.

  2. Found one of these little beauties this Sunday. My little one is brown w/ an orange ridge down it’s back & some white dashes down both sides of it’s body. It was so gorgeous I saved him in my nephews bug viewer for them to see when they came home. While getting him off of my door frame I was tempted to use my hands…..Thank God my intuition stopped me for whatever reason…..I think it was the orange back ridge that triggered something in my brain…..saying “Don’t Touch!”. My newphews enjoyed checking out the caterpillar. We put him on the shelf until Monday evening. When we took the bug viewer down to get a picture before letting it go….it had cocooned up. Put it back on my bookshelf until now and decided to figure out what this beauty is……..Boy was I surprised! Now what do I do with it??? Any advice? How long until it morphs?
    By the way, your photos are awesome.

    1. Thanks so much for visiting and commenting, Beth! I’m glad you like the photos.

      Good idea on being careful with this caterpillar. Your instincts were correct.

      If it already went into the cocoon state, it could stay that way all winter with the adult emerging next spring or early summer. You can keep it inside and check on it daily to see if the adult has emerged or is emerging. If it’s an early bloomer, it could come out sooner than next year (that’s unusual but not impossible). You’ll want to release the adult as soon as it emerges since its life is quite short and its only intention is to mate.

      What a fabulous opportunity for your nephews to see the metamorphosis! They’ve seen the larva; if you’re lucky, they can see how that transforms into a beautiful and intriguing adult moth. Good luck!

  3. But the little thing looks so pettable! Clever defense. And quite a formidable list of symptoms.

    When I found my first Saddleback Caterpillar, reading about the pain from their venom left such an impression that I don’t touch any caterpillars now.

    Stupendous photos. Thank you for risking life and limb to take them!

    1. Thank you, Jain! And I’m with you: my recommendation is always to avoid touching something unless you know it’s safe. Few caterpillars can sting, but those who can usually make it an experience you’ll never forget. So you’re wise to err on the side of caution.

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