Monday, April 29, 2013

Stinging Caterpillers - Declaration of WAR!!!

Buck Moth Stinging Caterpillar
Last spring my front porch, back porch and agility training yard were rendered USELESS from mid April thru mid June by the presence of thousands of stinging caterpillars - of the Buck Moth variety.  We sprayed them, squashed them by the thousands, and cursed them when they stung us or the poor dogs, but still they came.  They climb the walls, up chair legs, under vegetation, on lamp shades, drawer handles, and all through the grass -- they are everywhere.  The dogs, once stung, refuse to leave the porch. All you have to do is barely brush up against those little spines on their back to get a jolt which feels like being electrocuted.  My friend and neighbor, Laura, took pleasure in slashing them in half with a machette by the hundreds last spring after one stung her 9 year old daughter.  I can still hear Portia's hysterical shrieking, indescribably painful at first and sore for days afterward.

My "new" dog walk gets a coat of paint
in March, before the caterpillars arrive.
On April 8th this year, I spotted (and squashed) my first one of the season, then declared war!  Dadgummit, I'm taking my yard back.  My new aluminum dog walk (new to me, that is, won in an auction and recently refurbished) beckons me, and I'm not going to sit inside with all this fabulous spring weather for training and a puppy who needs it, while the caterpillars are the only ones enjoying my yard.

The Buck Moth caterpillars live on oak and willow trees, and crawl up and down the trunks in long lines.  My yard is full of oaks, so my first line of defense was to wrap a band of aluminum foil around the trunk of the two oaks nearest my house and staple it in place.  Sure enough, the caterpillars can't hold on to the smooth surface so they turn around and go back up. 

Caterpillar can't hold onto the smooth tape.
Then I decided to try a smooth surfaced duck tape - a lot easier to apply -- it works just as well, and I can do a lot more trees for a lot less effort, but I still had to staple it in place to keep it snug in the many grooves in the trunks.  While most can't make it over the smooth surface a few seem able to.  I guess there are mutations in every species -- supercaterpillars with feet that can scale smooth surfaces.  But at this point 3 weeks later, the population seems to be far less than last year.  Have I interrupted their cycle somewhat?  Or are they just not as bad this year?

I can't find a website that explains their life cycle and how they spend their days.  All I know is they go up and down the trees, chomp on oak leaves all day for 8 weeks or so (we can hear them chewing) until they are fat, then they disappear. By then it's summer and too hot to go outdoors.  About all Wikipedia says is they are an especial problem in Baton Rouge, LA, (where I live) where so many public areas are planted in oak trees.

First Aid For Stings
This University of Kentucky website on stinging caterpillars, says there is no first aid for stings, but there absolutely is!  I discovered it many years ago studying herbs, from an esoteric book called Health Through God's Pharmacy, by German herbalist Marie Treban.  One little line in that book suggested Swedish Bitters as a remedy for bee stings.  I bought a bottle at the health food store, by Nature Works, and it immediately neutralizes the pain and reduces swelling.  Tried it on ant bites, wasps and stinging caterpillars, too, and it takes the sting out within seconds.  I now keep a bottle of it in my car, RV, purse, and medicine cabinet at home.  I've bought the prepared bottles, and also the dry herbs and made up bottles of the tincture as stocking stuffers. I've used it on kids and my dogs with immediate results.  Just daub some on a cotton ball and rub it into the sting.  Even if you are highly allergic, it works, but you have to do it right away for best results. It's hard to keep a dog from licking it off, though.  You have to hold their paw for a few minutes, allowing it to soak into the skin.

3 25' rows, tilled, covered and mulched.
Cucumber trellis in back, different varieties
of tomatoes and peppers, bush beans,
okra.  In another row, herbs
and pole beans.  Yet to go, the watermelon/
squash patch.
You can barely see it, but my dog walk
sits just behind this garden.
Despite these disgusting pests, beautiful weather in the 70's has enticed John and me outside to bask in sunshine, repair the garden fence, plant, and we have succeeded in laying in about 2/3ds of our spring garden.  But we must examine every single thing we touch, and are so angry at them we squash every caterpillar we see until their guts pop out.  Revenge is sweet against such a relentless foe that poisons our yard and threatens our babies.

Addendum on 5/26: In addition to squishing them, we also found a pet friendly spray for crawling insects that we use to kill them individually. This doesn't help remove them from the grass, and takes several minutes to kill them after which they hang on the trees or fences until removed. Still a pain to deal with.  Towards the end of the season I noticed a few caterpillars drowned in the dog's outdoor water bowl!  Aha!  So I set up jars haf filled with water in both yards, and instead of squashing or spraying, John and I use long metal spoons to pick them up then toss them in the water.  They squiggle a bit then drown -- so much easier than the other methods tried.  Here's our haul from the last 3 days in the front yard.  We have 5 other jars just as full scattered about.

Adult Buck Moth

Eventually the spiny caterpillars turn into these handsome furry moths, who mate and lay eggs in the trees. Supposedly if you spray the trees in November, it kills the eggs, but the sprayer only reaches up about 20 feet, not useful if your trees are 100 feet high.  Meanwhile, if you should see one of these moths, please do your bit for humanity and KILL IT!  Don't let them lay their eggs. Their offspring are pure evil!

Upwards and onward!

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