Have you noticed a heavier population of furry, red-headed caterpillars in the Lowcountry recently?

Although not quite at their peak hatching season, people are starting to notice, and feel, the presence of these nuisances.

These hairy looking insects are called tussock moth caterpillars and they tend to raid the Lowcountry around this time of year.

What are Tussock moth caterpillars?

There are several different types of tussock moth caterpillars around the country and in South Carolina; however, the ones found here in the Lowcountry are called white-marked tussock moths (Orgyia leucostigma).

A group of red-headed azalea caterpillars devouring a leaf.

For this species, the caterpillars hatch from around April until June, which is why you might be just starting to notice them. Then, throughout the next several stages, usually lasting between 30-40 days, they will continue to develop.

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Generally, when you spot these caterpillars, it tends to be in abundance. White-marked tussock caterpillars can have population outbreaks, in which a local population will rampantly swell.

From the subfamily Lymantriinae, this species can easily be distinguished as male versus female. For instance, males have wings like a typical moth after hatching from their cocoon, whereas females remain wingless, similar to the caterpillars you can frequently find during springtime and early summer in the Lowcountry.

White-marked tussock moth caterpillars are about an inch to an inch and a half long.

These caterpillars have four brush-like tufts on their backs, sometimes described having a likeness similar to a toothbrush. They also have two clusters of long black quills, which extend from either side of the head and give the appearance of antennae as well as a bright red head.

Before the male caterpillars begin their transformations into moths, they will create and become small, white cocoons that can be seen dotted almost everywhere around the Lowcountry.

Across South Carolina, U-pick strawberry farms are preparing to welcome visitors onto their farms to fill their buckets with sweet, sun-ripe, bright red strawberries.

As for the flightless females, these moths will generally stay near their own empty cocoons and never stray too far. They lay their eggs on what is left of their cocoon and cover it with a special secretion to protect them, then dying shortly after.

As caterpillars, they tend to feed on a wide range of host plants. This includes oak, apple, birch, willow, hackberry, cherry and coniferous trees such as fir and spruce.

When in an area of high population numbers of these caterpillars, such as many places in the Lowcountry, they may cause significant damage to neighboring trees.

Neither the male or female moths will feed as adults. Their focus is on mating and successfully laying their eggs and will die within days following this process, according to ThoughtCo.

In addition, white-marked tussock moths will produce two different generations each year.

The first generation of these caterpillars emerge from their eggs in the spring, which is why we are beginning to see so many of them. Once hatched, they feed on surrounding flora for four to six weeks before pupating into their mature stage. After two weeks, the adult moths then emerge from their cocoons. At this stage, they are ready to mate and lay eggs; Thus, repeating the cycle and allowing for the second generation of the year, ThoughtCo states.

Where can you find them?

In the Lowcountry, these moth caterpillars can pretty much be found anywhere. But, if you really want to look, try looking at the nearby trees.

Are you near any live oak trees?

This is a favorite snack of white-marked tussock moths in this area and, although live oaks are a preferential choice, they feed on a variety of different foliage. These may include oak, cherry, birch, apple, willow, hackberry and some coniferous trees such as fir and spruce. In large numbers, these caterpillars can cause significant damage to the local flora.

Yet, despite their attraction to their natural surroundings, these caterpillars can also be found anywhere from palmetto fronds to scouring nearby buildings or even your front porch.

Are they dangerous?

When you happen to come across one of these little caterpillars, which you most likely will at some point, avoid touching it. The caterpillar’s numerous prickly hairs do more than just display an array of warning colors. They also act as a defense mechanism.

Although they are not poisonous or venomous like many are led to believe, they can leave quite an irritating rash.

Keep in mind that children are much more susceptible to receiving a rash than adults, according to The University of Maine. They are also at risk of receiving a much harsher variation of this rash. This rash can be persistent and painful.

Dermatitis has also been reported from daycare centers and elementary schools when children play with these caterpillars. Surprisingly to many, contact with just the cocoons can produce the same symptoms even after cocoons are a year old, detailed North Carolina State University.

The rash is caused by chemicals that cover the hairs and coat the skin on contact. Once touched, it causes an allergic reaction, which creates the appearance of a rash consisting of redness, irritation, itchiness and welts. Their hairs are barbed, which can make them difficult to remove from your skin, according to InsectIdentification.

With hatching season only just beginning, there will be no shortage of white-marked tussock moth caterpillars in the Lowcountry for quite awhile.

Although your young ones might think they would make a great pet as they are small, cute and furry, it might not be worth the rash. Appreciating the insect from afar and everything the Lowcountry has to offer, or even just snapping a picture instead, would be an experience that is just as fun.

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