Caterpillars very visible in fall as they prepare for winter

Late fall is the last hurrah for caterpillars. Voraciously eating like little gluttons before it is time to pupate and settle down for a long winter’s nap, caterpillars become very visible. Wooly Bear caterpillars scurry across the road; tent caterpillars form webs of writhing worms; and in the Earth Lady’s garden the caterpillars of the banded tussock moth have been literally falling from the trees.

The caterpillars of the banded tussock moth, Halysidota tessaellaris, have been extremely prolific this year, and it is somewhat startling when these caterpillars free-fall from oaks and alight on unsuspecting visitors.

Unfortunately, most people have an aversion to fuzzy caterpillars crawling upon their bodies, and the hairs or setae of these particular caterpillars emit toxins that can create a stinging sensation and irritate the skin. However, if one can be broadminded and tolerant of nature’s peculiarities, the tussock moth caterpillars are most interesting.

The banded tussock moth caterpillar is covered with long hair-like setae, and its color can vary from yellow to brown to gray. Long black and white lashes extend from its head and from its tail. In fact, it looks somewhat like a little toy dog in dire need of a haircut.

These particular caterpillars are very conspicuous, and unlike most caterpillars, which are rather furtive in their feeding habits, they brazenly forage on the tops of leaves in plain view, seemingly oblivious to predators. It is believed that the caterpillars of the banded tussock moth ingest alkaloids from their host plants and consequently predators, especially birds, find them distasteful or unpalatable.

This caterpillar feeds on a variety of woody shrubs and trees, including oak, hickory, walnut, elm and hackberry. It can be found in woodlands from Canada to central Florida. There is one brood in the North and two in the South. Because these caterpillars are late-season feeders, it is believed that the damage to trees is minimal. (The gypsy moth, another hairy caterpillar but a non-native species, is considered to be a major forest pest.) The caterpillar will weave a gray cocoon with its hairs or setae and will overwinter.

The adult banded tussock moth or pale tiger moth has pale beige-yellow wings that are almost diaphanous. On the wings there are faint beige bands edged in black, and the body is covered with yellow hairs. There are two parallel turquoise blue lines on the upper side of the body. This moth is attracted to light, so look for it fluttering about the porch light.

Late fall is a season of change when critters are on the move. Yellow jackets are irritable, copperheads are cantankerous as they slither towards their dens, bears are grumpy as they prepare to hibernate and stinging caterpillars may fall from trees. But do not be daunted by such churlish behavior. Venture outdoors and revel in the halcyon days of fall, and if you should encounter a banded tussock moth caterpillar, admire its unique beauty – just do not touch. ‘Tis the season, and it is nature’s way.

The Earth Lady by Margaret Gratz appears in the Daily Journal Home & Garden section once a month.