Eastern Tent Caterpillars form silk-webbed nests in branches or where main stems fork. The colony uses the nest for protection against predators and the elements. The nest is built in layers. As the caterpillars increase in size they add additional layers of silk to the nest.
Eastern tent caterpillars generally attack understory trees, particularly crabapple, wild cherry, and apple, but also will feed on peach, pear, plum, rose, hawthorn, and others. The larvae often eat all the leaves off a tree. Although this damage is unsightly and worrisome, it usually only weakens the tree after three or more years of more than 50% defoliation.
The caterpillars are hairy, black with white stripes with narrower brown and yellow line on the sides and blue spots. When full grown, they are about two inches long. Caterpillars are the only stage which cause feeding damage. After about six weeks of feeding and growing the young spin white or yellowish white cocoons, about one inch in length.
Adults are reddish brown moths with stripes on the forewings and have a wingspan of 1" - 1 1/2". The adults mate and females lay about 200 eggs in a ring around twigs, laying on a foamy secretion which dries to a hard, protective shell. The eggs overwinter and hatch out as tiny larvae in early spring usually early to mid April.
If you have potential tree hosts, careful observation and hand control may be all you need. In fall, winter, and early spring look for egg masses and cut or scrape them off and either burn or soak them in soapy water. In early spring, tear out nests by hand or with a garden tool and destroy the young caterpillars. This can be easily accomplished by dropping the nest parts and caterpillars in a pail or dishpan of soapy water. People often burn the nest out of the trees, but we do not recommend this method because of the safety hazard.
There are several natural enemies of the tent caterpillar. A parasitic fly attacks full grown caterpillars. This fly looks like a housefly, but is twice as large, has a light gray thorax with three black stripes. The fly maggot consume the caterpillar internally and kill it as a pup (cocoon). That tent caterpillar may have eaten your tree leaves, but it won't leave young to do it next year. Ground beetles and predaceous wasps also eat tent caterpillars, as do various birds, most notably Northern orioles. The birds' hanging sack-like nests mean you won't have to worry about tent caterpillars; orioles have been known to eat entire infestations.
Acephate, carbaryl, malathion, and B.t. are the recommended insecticides.Bacillus thuringiensis (B.t.) is the most environmentally sound solution. If you own an orchard, try to clear out nearby wild cherry trees, if possible. If your trees have been defoliated, water and fertilize them. One inch of water, applied once per week is recommended.
For a complete listing of suggested control options for all home, yard and garden insect pests, check with your local Extension Service, found under local government in the phone book.
Read and follow instructions on the pesticide label. Heed all warnings. Check with your physician if you have any concerns regarding your personal health risk. Revised by Tom Ellis, M.S., Department of Entomology
Source: MSU Extension
We have a crab apple tree and we have them bad. We can't even sit in our back yard, they are everywhere. We were going to cut the branch off but it was too high. Now what do we do? I want to be able to sit in my back yard. (06/08/2005)
I was bitten by a young tent caterpillar when I discovered it on my neck and scraped it off fast. Now I have a rash in the area that is very itchy, it is in the crook of my neck on the left side and is driving me crazy. Any other problems that I might expect? I didn't know they were biters!
Hi Laurie, here's something I found on WebMD
Hope you are doing better with your bite. I'd never heard of any caterpillars biting before. (06/11/2005)
It probably wasn't the poor caterpillar that bit you, it was probably something else you didn't notice until then! (04/14/2006)
How long do tent caterpillars stay around for? Are they going to be here all summer? How do you get rid of them?
Editor's Note: The best way is to burn the nests or cut them down and put them in a tightly tied garbage bag and put them in the trash. They will hatch and will eat the tree or bush they are on. They are usually really bad some years and you may have none the next. (05/31/2006)
Hi Laurie, I didn't know caterpillars could bite / cause rashes either! My son collected about 9 of them at the playground the other day, and now he has an itchy rash on the palm of his hand. How is your rash doing? I'm hoping this will clear up quickly.
These caterpillars DO sting/bite! My son got a really bad rash from being bite/stung. I ended up having to take him to the ER because the rash was so bad and had spread all over his body! (08/17/2006)
My daughter got bit by one yesterday and now has a very itchy rash all over her back. Interesting, I can't find any other references to these caterpillars biting and causing rash, other than this discussion! (09/22/2006)
By Evelyn's mom
My two girls collected about 10 tent caterpillars a piece, and have them in bug cages. My nine year old said one of them would bite her all the way up her arm, while she held it. She said it just felt like tiny pinches. I think it was looking for food. She never got a rash. They love taking care of them and holding them. (04/05/2007)
I was standing under a tree and a caterpillar was later found on my neck and after I removed it, I started to itch bad in that area and then I broke out in a rash with small blisters that seemed to spread up my neck. Not sure what kind of caterpillar it was.
This was in South Texas. It had lots of spines on it.
Editor's Note: From Health.msn.com:
"Contact with most caterpillars does not cause problems. The puss caterpillar, or woolly slug, is the most poisonous caterpillar in the United States. Immediately remove broken-off caterpillar spines by placing cellophane tape or a commercial facial peel over the sting site and then pulling it off."
You might want to call your doctor. In any case taking a Benedryl wouldn't hurt and might help your reaction. (04/16/2007)
I think that they are nice because I am going to make a cage for them so that they can turn into moths or something (04/18/2007)
I have about 100 of them in my caterpillar tank but they have never bitten me. Don't kill them PLEASE (04/27/2007)
I found one on my neck after mowing the lawn April 28th 2007. Next day I have 6 bumps on my neck that itch and some have swollen. Not sure what type caterpillar it was.
Editor's Note: There are some caterpillars that bite. Try putting some moistened baking soda or calamine lotion on the bites. If they continue to swell, call your doctor. (04/29/2007)
By chuck pearson
Hi Chuck, I've got the same thing. I felt something crawling on my neck Sunday about a half an hour after I came inside. I was thinking it was a spider so I smacked my neck, felt something, and rubbed it down my neck to try and kill it and get it off me. Then I saw it was a tent caterpillar when it hit the floor. I'm surprised I didn't kill the thing. So I put it outside and didn't think anything about it until Tuesday afternoon (yesterday) when my neck started itching. Now I've got a very itchy rash on the left side of my neck about the size of my palm. I'm going to the doc today for a physical, so I'm going to ask him about it. I have bad reactions to insects ever since I was bitten by a black widow back in '87, but that's another story for another post. :) If the doc tells me to do anything else besides the Benadryl or calamine lotion, I'll post it here. (05/02/2007)
My kids have played with tent caterpillars for 3 years now, letting them crawl up there arms, (gross for Mom but they love it) We have not had any bites or rashes.
We live in central Oregon and have a lot of them in the sage brush. (05/23/2007)
On Friday afternoon my daughter was playing with/holding some ETC's and allowing them to crawl on her palms and her feet. On Saturday she developed a rash consisting of redness with little pimply bumps throughout on all the areas she allowed the caterpillars to go. She says she was not bitten, but obviously something caused her to have the reactions. If anyone who has experienced this rash, please post how long it lasted. (06/03/2007)
My son is just getting over being covered with a blister like rash all over his hands, arms, chest and face. The doctor couldn't say much about. It turns out that these caterpillars emit a microscopic airborne poison from their spine, etc. that bothers some people. He has been caring for a couple of them and letting them crawl all over himself. It wasn't until someone said their child had the same rash from caterpillars. Duh, we never connected the two. Aveeno has a hydrocortisone cream out that has worked the best for the itching.
It has been a very painful rash. Good luck (06/05/2007)
I live on Long Island, my mother and I were driving along the Long Island expressway and noticed the tent caterpillars nests at the top of just about every tree we drove past. I stopped and took a picture the second time we saw them and brought the pic's home. Nobody knew what they were. There were millions along the island. We finally found out what they are and now I drove along the L.I.E. And most of them are now gone. I am glad i found out that they were only going to be butterflies not bees or bats because the thought of any of those other nests being what they were scared the heck out of us. (06/19/2007)
I think the caterpillars DO cause allergy. In our place, there are so many caterpillars all around, wherever you are, especially under a tree. Many people, including me, say that those caterpillars can cause allergy. I experienced it when one of the caterpillars crawled on my arm and in less than an hour, I experienced very itchy skin, reddening of the skin and very irresistible. Many are reported in our school, being absent because of the allergy caused be the caterpillars. Now, I'm having a phobia on those caterpillars. I can't even go near a single one. Many also said that the hairs of the caterpillars are the ones that causes allergy. I need help. Whenever I saw one, I killed it immediately. Otherwise it will crawl wherever it can go and victimize other people. I consider the caterpillar NOT innocent.
Thanks Though. (09/28/2007)
Kill as many of those caterpillars as you can because they can bite/sting you! (10/23/2007)
ETC's look similar to the brown tailed moth which does cause irritation and also builds tents. I'm almost sure the brown tails inhabit parts of North America, but for a fact ETC's are harmless. (02/21/2008)
At my school they have like TONS of them! Me and a couple of friends LOVE to play with them and hold them, but the thing is I don't remember me itching or having rashes. I have a couple of small rashes on my elbow, but I never let them crawl up to my elbow. They did try to bite. Me and my friends would just jerk their hand back quickly and we never got bit. I really need to know A LOT about them because I don't want to get a rash like some people already said. I'm worried if I do get a rash. (03/15/2008)
I've been taking care of ETCs for years. They've never bitten me yet. I think they're so adorable! And since they're the only bug I know so much about. I enjoy taking care of them. They turn into moths! Currently I own 4 of them--well DID.
Sadly, one of mine died today. I dunno what's wrong with it? I've NEVER seen anything like it. It was depressing watching my poor "Jitters" squirm around in agony in my hands. I noticed this weird green thing coming out of his butt and I could tell it was hurting him badly, so I thought of what was best at the time. And, I stomped him. Then, tears streaming down my face and all, I buried him under my mom's tree.
I've only had Jitters since this passed Friday cuz I found him at school. He was perfectly fine then. My other 3 caterpillars I found that Friday afternoon at my dad's. Currently they are ok. I always feed them plum tree leaves since we own a plum tree and they love those leaves A LOT!
*sigh sadly* I just wish I knew what hurt my caterpillar. (03/31/2008)
These caterpillars have never caused a rash on my children and they have played with them for many years! Maybe some people are 'more allergic' than others, like with bee stings, or fire ants. (04/11/2008)
I have a tree in my back yard that is literally infested with ETC. They are also in my garden eating the leaves off my bushes and they are all over my back deck. I don't know what to do they are to high in the tree to reach. Will they kill my tree and my garden?? I'm sure they are all over my deck because of the tree city of them and I don't want my little boy around them if they cause such terrible rashes.
I am at a loss of ideas and worried, can anyone give my any suggestions?
I think that some of the rashes/allergies may have something to do with the caterpillar's hair. When they get into something you're allergic to, it wipes off on you. I am unaware of whether or not they bite/sting. If so, it may be better to avoid it happening. Medical websites may give more info.
P.S. - I don't think I want to have one bite ME - otherwise I'd volunteer to check it for ya. (04/12/2008)
I was eating food when I felt like someone was starring at me. I looked on my deck and it was a furry caterpillar. I've never seen one of these. It had a white line and hair and, the ones I used to get are like that got extinct. I played with the caterpillar a lot and for hours. One day when I went to go shower I noticed a rash. I then got scared and thought it was poison type caterpillar. But this caterpillar isn't. It's just a normal caterpillar that doesn't bite you but if you feel pinching it's the caterpillars feet but,the only reason I got this rash was because of the caterpillars hair and in that hair is like a mosquito thing which I'm alrergic to. So I got this rash in all you guys might be fine.
Tent caterpillars aren't really the "stinging" variety. And they don't have "airborne poison" either. The "stinging" agent is actually a substance produced by pupating individuals. Handling cocoons causes a similar reaction. This reaction seems to only happen among allergy sufferers and people with sensitive skin. The reaction tends to consist of reddening of the skin and itching. Contact dermatitis can also be triggered. It's rarely ever dangerous, though it's said if the rash is particularly bad to seek medical treatment. "Pinching" felt when holding the caterpillar is usually caused by its front legs. I'm not sure if they bite. It's said that most if not all caterpillars are incapable of biting. However picking one up with a gloved hand results in it displaying typical "biting behavior", as well as being able to feel grabbing and pinching through the glove. Though it could just be a harmless defensive tactic meant to scare, rather than actual biting. Most caterpillars are not harmful. Even ones with spines don't typically sting. Though since it's hard to tell just by looking at it, it's advised to never handle any caterpillar that's fuzzy, hairy, spiny or spikey.
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