The puss caterpillar is just one more strange insect in 2020
Murder hornets and zombie cicadas have been news topics in 2020, so it isn't unusual that we end the year with another crazy or dangerous insect. This one is called the puss caterpillar and is the larval form of the Southern flannel moth (Megalopyge opercularis.) It has hundreds of hairs on its body that resemble a kitten's fur. Children seeing one would love to touch it, however each one of those fluffy little hairs produces a sting that some people say is as bad as a limb amputation. Yes, every one of those little furry hairs is a stinger and packs a punch as bad as a mule kick. They are also called asp caterpillars since the sting is also compared to a snake bite. Every one of these hairs is full of a toxic venom and just lightly brushing them can cause them to break off and embed in the skin. Don't use your hands to remove the hairs, they will continue to sting after breaking off the caterpillar. Use tape, tweezers or scrape them off with the edge of a piece of cardboard. These stings are extremely painful and swelling and redness also occurs. They aren't lethal, however the stings can cause a huge amount of pain, especially in a child. Apply cold compresses, give pain medication and an antihistamine.
The puss caterpillar is the larval form of the Southern flannel moth
The Southern flannel moth is found from Maine to Florida and as far west as Arkansas, Missouri and Texas. The host plants for the caterpillar are oaks and elms, which are often planted on playgrounds. The moth itself is cute and fuzzy, however it isn't venomous at all. The caterpillar looks innocent enough, however children should be taught to recognize it and leave it alone. It starts life with pale, yellowish fur and as it matures, the hairs darken and go grayer, so it is best to leave fuzzy caterpillars alone if you are not certain of an identity. There are at least two generations of the caterpillars each season, so chances are, they can be found anytime after early summer. This is a good time to educate children and yourself about insects found in the garden and to let them go about their business. Look but don't touch should be something we all should do.
Encourage wild creatures in your garden
Gardens are places full of life and while most of it is harmless, there are a few creatures that should be left to go about their business. Just like poisonous plants, some insects should be avoided and children should be taught at an early age to leave them alone. In fact, it is a good idea to teach children to respect all life in the garden. Whether it is the black and yellow garden spider, beautiful swallowtails or various beetles, each insect has a purpose and letting Nature exist peacefully is a lesson we should all learn.
Use the garden as a home-learning classroom
Many children are learning at home this school year and the garden should be considered an additional classroom. Grade schoolers can identify trees by their leaves or study beneficials like the praying mantis and the ladybug. Have them create an area for the birds, giving them a safe place to bathe and a feeding station. Learn to identify wild plants on the property and what purpose they serve for wildlife. Are they host plants for insects, or do songbirds like their fruit or seeds? Teach children that leaving a bit of wild space helps insects and wildlife survive. Build a bat house for the night-flying creatures. It will see more use than a butterfly house. Butterfly houses are cute and look nice in the garden, however humans get more use out of them than the butterflies. To put it bluntly, even though there is a whole industry promoting them, they don't work. Chances are, overwintering spiders will be the only things to take up residence. So, if you want to build something for the children (or yourself) to encourage wildlife, choose a bat box or a bluebird house instead. Older children (middle school through high school) should learn about medicinal plants, edible plants and if they have a creative mind, which plants are used for natural dye or basket making. Photography is also a great activity that harms nothing. The more that children know about the garden, the more they will enjoy spending time there.
Teach children respect for wildlife
The puss caterpillar is a great way to start that education. Learning to identify it serves multiple purposes. First of all, it keeps everyone safe. It also teaches respect for wildlife. The knowledge of what specific insects and animals need to survive and how to conserve these resources is something that they can carry with them into adulthood.