Sycamore Tussock Moth Caterpillar

I was sitting at Café Maywood Tuesday morning, enjoying the quiet with my coffee and my journal.  I noticed a caterpillar on a marigold leaf.  So much for my quiet time…

“Hey, Harper, come out here and see this caterpillar!”

“Wow…it’s so cool…”

Sycamore Tussock Moth Caterpillar in Hereford, Maryland--click to enlarge

We’ve never seen one of these before.  Furry white and very soft.  And it has a red face!  So strange!  And whiskery things.  They aren’t antennae.  They stick straight up like antennae, but they look more like cat whiskers.

I took its picture and then Harper took pictures of everything else on the porch.  (So glad for digital cameras!)  Then I had to find out what it was.  I’m no entomologist, but the internet is a wonderful thing.  After looking at a crazy number of really bizarre looking caterpillars, I finally found ours.

It is a sycamore tussock moth.  The whiskery things are called tussocks, hair tufts or pencil hairs.  (“Whiskery things” sounds just as scientific to me as “pencil hair.”)    This type does not bite or cause skin disorders.  What?  Caterpillars can bite or cause skin disorders?  I was relieved to know that this is “safe” for humans since I had encouraged Harper to hold it.  The problem with this caterpillar for us is that it likes to eat trees.  In particular,  the trees that grow all over Maywood.  Besides sycamores, they eat maple, oak, hickory, walnut, honey locust, and woody shrubs.    (Hmm…woody shrubs like mountain laurel?)  An infestation would be problematic.  They are in the same family as gypsy moths and they produce three generations a season.  They could be prolific, given the opportunity.

One website mentioned a bird-friendly environment as the best way to manage them.  Well, then, tree-hugger John can sleep at night.  We have all sorts of birds around here.  I wonder if the pileated woodpeckers like to eat sycamore tussock moth caterpillars.  It’s an awfully cute little caterpillar, but I’d be content to offer him to a woodpecker.

Here’s something else I learned today.  One can be an entomologist (one who studies insects) or an etymologist (one who studies the history of words).  The field of entymology was invented today by me.  It is the study of the history of the names of insects.

Sycamore Tussock Moth Caterpillar--Here birdy, birdy!

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