Virginia has a new guest, and it is a venomous caterpillar that looks like a walking toupee. This caterpillar is the larval form of the Megalopyge opercularis, or the southern flannel moth. It is one of the most venomous caterpillars in the US, and its hairs are actually razor sharp spines. If one happens to sting you, the sensation is extremely painful, with one woman who fell victim to this caterpillar saying that the sting felt like having a hot knife pass through her calf.
This type of caterpillar has been seen as far north as New Jersey, but they are most common in west-central texas and Florida. Some say that this species made its way to Virginia due to climate change, which led to an increase in temperature in the state and across the country. As the climate continues to change, insect populations will as well. Some will increase and some will decrease in numbers. As far as the venomous pus caterpillar goes, time will tell whether it adapts to more central and northern areas of the US.
The venom from this caterpillar is also chemically similar to that of bees, so anyone with an allergy to bee stings will have a similar reaction to a sting from the pus caterpillar. If you do end up touching one of these insects by accident, there are few key steps to reduce the pain and damage that it may cause. First, wash the area and remove any of the caterpillar’s hairs by placing a tape over the area and ripping it off. Do this several times with a fresh piece of tape each time. Then, you can use steroid cream or ice packs in order to reduce the pain and swelling caused by the sting. If you have had bad reactions from insect stings in the past, or if you were stung near your eyes, contact a doctor right away.
What makes these caterpillars worse than average is their appearance, which almost begs you to touch them. It can attract children and almost anyone who is not familiar with just how dangerous and painful their sting can be. Thankfully the adult version of this caterpillar is not venomous, but interestingly, a female will cover her eggs with hair from her abdomen, presumably in order to deter any predator by giving the impression that the eggs are as venomous as the larvae.
As mentioned previously, invasive species in the US will go through boom and bust cycles, where their populations will explode and decrease dramatically depending on weather, the number of parasites in the environment that year, and food availability. This species is currently on the rise.