Saddleback caterpillar’s sting packs potent punch
An insatiable curiosity, understanding parents and a university in Oregon that wanted entomologists but could no longer afford a department to keep them in has Timothy D. “Tim” Schowalter at LSU sounding the alarm on the saddleback caterpillar.
The chances of being stung by a saddleback aren’t that likely, said Schowalter, professor and head of the LSU AgCenter’s Department of Entomology.
Schowalter took time from his administrative work and tracking the comeback of arthropods in forests damaged by storms, fire and harvesting to put out a release on the saddleback after his wife, Cathy, was stung by one as she picked blueberries at home.
The saddleback caterpillar’s toxicity is several times that of buckmoth (stinging) caterpillars, and the pain is longer lasting. Severe cases can mean renal failure and cerebral hemorrhaging. The caterpillars’ host plants include oaks, maple, willow, apple, aster trees and blueberries, buttonbush, citrus and corn.
“This is the first one I’ve seen in years,” Schowalter said, “but they apparently are more common across the South this year.
“My wife got stung picking blueberries, so I worked with AgCenter communications to send out a release. I think I got stung by the caterpillar a few days before, when it was little.”
Schowalter, who’s from Kansas, treats saddleback stings the way South Louisianians treat buckmoth caterpillar stings. He uses adhesive tape repeatedly, a fresh piece of tape each time, to remove the spine tips. Then, he washes the affected skin with soap and water to help remove the irritating venom.
Applying ice may ease the pain.
Because South Louisianians turn any event into something about food, Schowalter’s been told that stung locals use meat tenderizer to ease the pain. Toothpaste is another pain remedy, but getting the spine tips out is most important.
The saddleback caterpillar has what looks like two heads, each spiked. The caterpillar’s primary color is reddish brown. There is a chartreuse and white blanket over the midsection with a reddish brown oval “saddle.”
Saddlebacks’ numbers aren’t sufficient to warrant insecticide use in the South, he said. “If you see one, try to carefully remove using gloves or tongs and destroy.” Or go water the eggplant.
If you’re Schowalter’s wife, call Schowalter.
The chief entomologist’s release ran to only a page so he added another warning, this one about fall webworms that despite their name are on the job now.
“Driving down Highland Road south of Lee Drive, you see the flags (tents) in a variety of trees,” said Schowalter.
Fall webworms make their silk tents in pecan trees, maple, box elder, redbud, hickory, persimmon, pear and ornamental trees.
Webworms’ threat is to their host plants not people unless the people breathe or bathe in the spray of whatever it is they’re using to spray the webworms.
If the tree’s big and healthy, Schowalter recommends pruning the tented branches if those can be reached safely. Otherwise, leave the tents alone.
“With a big tree, the damage won’t be any worse than losing a branch to wind damage,” Schowalter said. “Webworms can stunt a small fruit tree or an ornamental.”
“If you spray,” he said, “spray with Confirm 2F, Dylox 80 percent SP, Spintor 2 (spinosad), Malathion 57 percent EC or Methoxychlor 50 WP at labeled rates.”
Take your own driving survey of webworm tents on Highland Road. You’ll see them in pecans, maples, box elders and willows. In Bluebonnet Swamp, Schowalter found webworms in a couple of cypresses and a tupelo gum. He’s seen, in other places, tents in yellow birch, elm, sweet gum, redbud and in an elderberry bush.
Entomologists would rather homeowners use organic remedies instead of synthetic chemicals, if the organics will do the job, Schowalter said.
“There are plenty of naturally occurring toxins,” he said, “but with synthetics we may not know their effects.”
“Agriculture is regulated,” he said. “Homeowners aren’t, and there are insecticides on the shelves that are hazardous if used improperly. Asthma may be related to chemicals used at home. There’s child poisoning and pet poisoning.”
Schowalter takes flack from environmentalists as well as chemical producers. “I’d like to see the world free of synthetics, but I’d also like to see it free of malaria and West Nile.
Some of the entomologist’s work is in Puerto Rico looking at insect populations since Hurricane Hugo in 1989. His work in Louisiana, changes in insect populations post-Katrina and Gustav, is at Lake Ramsey northwest of Covington, Pearl River on the Louisiana-Mississippi border and Barataria.
“I was at Oregon State 23 years, so it wasn’t like they didn’t value the entomology department, but budget cuts started in the 1980s,” Schowalter said.
Oregon is on the California plan of no property tax increases. Oregon State closed its entomology department in 2002. Schowalter came to LSU in 2003.
“As department head at Oregon State,” he said, “my last job was trying to find (academic) homes for people. I’m concerned that budget cuts here are affecting the ability of departments, like Entomology, to meet the needs of Louisianians.”