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Look, but Don’t Touch!

My wife and I learned a valuable lesson last weekend. My wife really learned it. The hard way.

She was outside working in her raised-bed gardens, doing what she loves to do in the summertime. That day, she happened to be cutting down old cornstalks from which we had enjoyed many helpings of sweet corn and from which she had frozen many more for future consumption. Suddenly, she came running inside calling out, “Something bit me!”

Removing her clam diggers, she discovered on her leg, just above the knee, a reddening, slightly swollen spot. She said it had a burning, stinging sensation that was painful. No bite mark was visible, but she rubbed her finger over the area and could feel tiny, invisible spines. She washed it with soap, dried it, and then applied hydrocortisone cream. Before long, the pain went away.

Then she went outside to see if she could locate the cause of her pain. Spider? Assassin bug? She soon returned, motioning for me to follow her. When I got to where she was, she lifted a corn stalk and turned over one of the blades. There on the leaf was what I’m picturing here.

Returning inside, we began the research stage of our investigation. Google. And here’s what we learned.

The colorful but fearsome-looking creature is the saddleback caterpillar (Acharia stimulea), the larval stage of a slug moth and one of the most dangerous of the moth larva. It’s found throughout the eastern United States, from upper New York state to Florida, the Atlantic shores to eastern Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas.

Its most prominent feature is the source of its name: a bright green body and a brown spot in the center, which looks like a saddle blanket with an English saddle on top of it. Nearly as prominent are four long “horns,” one on each “corner” of the creature, two on each end. These horns are covered with hollow, hair-like spines filled with venom. The lower edge of the body is also skirted with smaller versions of these spines. The rear of the caterpillar has what looks like a Japanese warrior mask or helmet, making its backside resemble a face. (You can barely see the two white “eyes” on the right side of the caterpillar in this photo.)

Touching one of the horns or spines produces immediate results, as my wife discovered all too well. It produces an immediate burning sensation, increased perspiration, redness of skin, and in some cases even blistering. As soon as the spines penetrate the skin, they begin pumping venom into the victim. They break off and remain in the victim. The longer the spines remain embedded, the more venom they release, and the more severe the reactions. They have been known to trigger headaches, even migraines; gastrointestinal problems; asthmatic complications; bleeding; and anaphylactic shock.

My wife used her available knowledge in an attempt to treat her pain. Had we known more about what it was that had caused the pain, we might have taken other measures. For example, the first priority should have been to remove all spines first. One of the quickest ways of doing so is to use adhesive tape, which will cause the spines to stick to the adhesive and come out of the skin when you pull it off. Several applications might be necessary to get them all. Also, “the experts” recommend applying a paste of baking soda and water to the affected area and taking benadryl. But she worked with the knowledge she had at the moment, and it seemed to work. My wife is no worse for the experience, but she’s now older and wiser. And I was willing to learn vicariously! You know I’ll be watching warily the next time she wants me to pull a few ears off next year’s corn crop. And I’m sure she will be, too.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

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