Nov 30 2014

Nature Nerd

Melissa Crytzer Fry

Back in October, I experienced a bit of a surprise as I was weeding our rock-wall shelves. Perhaps more surprising to some may be my reaction to what happened – a true indication of just what a nature nerd I am.

Bending under an acacia bush and tugging at weeds, I felt a sharp sting and instant numbness on and beneath my shoulder. I won’t lie – I freaked out, slapping at my back, running toward my husband screaming, “Is there something on me? Is there?” (My fear was that I’d been bitten by a black widow, since they are in abundance).

He saw nothing, but the numbness intensified, and by the time I got into the house, this is what I saw:

Hubby: “Um, should we take you to the hospital? That doesn’t look good.”

Me (much calmer, now … I mean, my airways weren’t closing, so I figured I would live): “I think there are caterpillars that spit venom. Let me see if I can find the culprit.” Armed with my camera, I discovered this:

Indeed, the offender was a caterpillar – incredibly camouflaged. (Where I got the “spitting caterpillar” theory, I’m not sure). Moving beneath the tree, I must have brushed against the caterpillar repeatedly, completely unaware. Click to enlarge.

The next logical step – in my mind – was to Google what kind of caterpillar I was looking at to assess its threat. My best guess: a hemileuca juno buckmoth caterpillar, which I learned is covered with venom-tipped, dart-like hairs that are shed in defense. For safe measure (after seeing the word venom!), I consulted the Arizona Venom/Poison Center. Of course, I offered to email photos – of myself and the culprit.

I was told to use tape to remove any caterpillar hairs, wash with soap and water, then add some cortisone cream. (Click the above & below photos to see the incredible detail of those spines!)

Shortly after my first conversation with the poison/venom center, I received a call back indicating that the photos were fabulous – could they use them for publication? And, yes, they thought my ID of the stinging caterpillar was accurate.

So this is where my nerd-dom makes itself abundantly clear: I was SO excited. “Yes!” I nearly shouted into the phone. “Use my photos.” And if that weren’t enough, I received another call a few minutes later from an M.D.-researcher at the University of Arizona who said, “We never get photos like this. I would love to submit these for publication in the New England Journal of Medicine.”

My excitement now (forget the pain on my arm) was off-the-charts! The M.D. told me that their entomologist was also working on an official ID of the caterpillar. **Cue sirens of joy!** An entomologist? Woo hoo! (I later learned that the entomologist had never seen one of these caterpillars. So I obliged him with more photos):

It turns out, my ID was on target. The caterpillar is a Hemileuca Juno, tricolor, sporting venomous urticating spines. Lucky me!

It turns out, my ID was on target. The caterpillar is a Hemileuca tricolor (same genus as Juno), sporting venomous urticating spines. Click to enlarge.

These caterpillars were everywhere this year, including one on the screen, which caught Macho’s attention. I slammed that window down quite quickly so that he could avoid the sting.

These caterpillars were everywhere this year, including one on the screen, which caught Macho’s attention. I slammed that window down quite quickly so that he could avoid the sting. Click to enlarge.

The greatest irony of this tale? This stinging sucker becomes a gorgeous moth with grapefruit-colored underwings – one I have admired for years, and have nicknamed a “Muppet” because of its furry gray toupee and all-around cuteness:

These months appear right now -- when the weather gets cold -- and each year I take them into my hands during the winter months, in the mornings, to warm them back up and set them into the air. Ironically, touching them at this stage of their development is like touching silk. Click to enlarge.

These moths appear right now — when the weather gets cold — and each year I take them into my hands during the winter months, in the mornings, to warm them back up and set them into the air. Ironically, touching them at this stage of their development is like touching silk. Click to enlarge.

For Readers, Writers, Everyone: Lesson learned: sometimes the things we love and admire can hurt us.

That lesson is a theme we often see in the best fiction. Can you recall any favorite books that highlight some kind of betrayed love or loyalty? What about books – or incidents in real life – where beloved Mother Nature turns on her doting admirers? What about family members who turn on those they love? When you write, do you add this element to your storylines?


25 Responses to “Nature Nerd”

  • avatar Sonja Yoerg Says:

    Holy Youchy! I know that caterpillar was only defending itself, but couldn’t it just have honked its horn or something? Glad you were all right in the end–and got some well-deserved kudos for your photo skills. Hey, maybe that’s what the spiky guy had in mind all the time…

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    I would have appreciated a horn honk; I had NO idea he was even there (When I went back to see who zapped me, I saw the bush was FILLED with them). Who’d a thunk caterpillars can be dangerous (apparently only these buck moths have that attribute). Always an experience when you live in the desert!

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  • avatar Donna Says:

    Good Grief! Looks painful and itchy! How exciting that your photos will be submitted for use in a medical journal! They really are good pics, and I hope they will be used – all that detail! Congrats!

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Yes, who’d have thought I’d be getting congratulations for a painful caterpillar attack? I learn something new every day, living in the desert.

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  • avatar Beth Hoffman Says:

    Wow! Those are massive welts you have. I’m glad you didn’t need to go to the ER! I love, love, love that your nature nerdiness took over. What a great story!

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    We nerds need to stick together, don’t we? Hope you’re well, Beth – and that nature (of the non-stinging variety) is your continued muse on book no. 3!

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  • avatar Shary Says:

    Wow! What an incredible method of defense. I’ve been stung by an io moth caterpillar (bright green with a white and pink stripe down the side) but they don’t shed their spines and it’s nothing like what you experienced. I hope the stinging faded quickly.

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    OK – I looked up your io moth caterpillar … uncanny how similar those spines are, don’t you think? As painful as your sting must have been, that’s really a gorgeous caterpillar! (The sting did fade quickly. And, strangely, I wasn’t really, really itchy until the week AFTER the event).

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  • avatar Laurie Buchanan Says:

    Goodness, Gracious, Sakes Alive!
    Holy Toledo!
    Criminy!
    Ay Chihuahua!

    On all counts — Wounds and Phenomenal Acclaimed Photographs

    By the way, I’m oh-so-glad you’re still alive and breathing…

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Thanks, Laurie. I’m glad my lungs are still working, too!

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  • avatar Karen Zarske Says:

    What amazing photos. The transformation from menacing to beautiful is inspirational. Thanks, Melissa.

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Have you seen these moths around, Karen? We only started to see them when we moved to Southern AZ — this part of the state sure does have some interesting critters and insects!

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  • avatar Cherry Harris Says:

    Oh dear poor you It seems we all have to suffer for glory .You never know what these adorable critters have up their sleeves …just trying to survive like the rest of us . I do hope you’re feeling better now . Such photos deserve to be published they are delightful congrats Melissa
    Cherryx

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    I love it — yes, we do all have to suffer for glory, don’t we? And you’re right — that little guy was doing what he was hardwired to do: survive, even if only for a short time (who knew moths and butterflies had such short lifespans?).

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  • avatar Jackie Cangro Says:

    Wow, Melissa, those are some welts! How long did it take for them to go away?

    I’m so citified I would have never guessed that there is a caterpillar with venomous spikes. I love how awesome and surprising nature is! (But sorry that you had to go through that discomfort to find out.)

    Will they send you a link to your photos in the NE Journal of Medicine?

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    The welts appeared almost instantaneously, and then calmed down about 4 hours later. The scars, however, lasted a month-and-a-half, then finally faded! Well, even living in the desert, I didn’t know these kind of venom-spiked caterpillars existed, so citified or ruralized – it’s a surprising discovery!

    I’m hoping I WILL see the final results of the journal article! (I have the doctor’s name, so you betcha I’ll follow up!)

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  • avatar Judith Starkston Says:

    Somehow when I got stung by a scorpion the other day the last thing I thought about was getting a photo. You rock and totally win the nature nerd, outstanding photographer award. So cool that your photos are getting such magnificent publication locations. You managed to turn a bummer rash into a major medical advance for humankind.

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Oh NO! I would definitely NOT have been as euphoric over a painful scorpion. That’s one desert critter I don’t adore. I hope you’re ok!

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  • avatar Cynthia Robertson Says:

    Oh my, I’ve been out of the blogging loop lately (doing NaNo) and didn’t see this. You poor thing! That looks like it really hurt! It’s so cool that you were able to identify which caterpillar it was, Melissa. I agree with Judith: you rock! And I’m glad to hear your gorgeous photos are getting the recognition they deserve.

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Good for you, for doing NaNo. Was it a positive/helpful experience?

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  • avatar Annie Neugebauer Says:

    You never cease to charm me, Melissa. 🙂 Only you would get stung by a venomous bug and end up thrilled about it, haha. But I’m not at all surprised that you went back to take pictures OR that your pictures were so well received. You really do have a talent for nature photos; I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see you get more deeply involved in some sort of nature publication someday!

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Thanks, Annie, for the sweet compliment regarding my photos. I like your optimism that someday I will be involved in a nature publication (I’ve tried to get my foot in the door at Arizona Highways Magazine for years. I’ve proposed a nature blog to them, photos, a short monthly column…. The response? Crickets… Maybe it’s time to try again!)

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  • avatar Nina Says:

    I love Annie’s comment. Yes, only you!! 😉 Hope you are all recovered now!!

    That is a good lesson– that sometimes the things we love and admire can hurt us.

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  • avatar Jolina Petersheim Says:

    What an inspiring story, Melissa–way to turn the venom around for good! I’m not surprised a lick that they wanted your pictures for the New England Journal of Medicine. They’re always so top-notch.

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  • avatar Lori P Says:

    Heck yes! I’d have done the Mexican Hatdance if the New England JOM wanted photos I took. Heck, I’d offer to hand deliver them and send them a plaster replica of my hives! Soooooo happy for you, minus the pain.

    Btw, please forgive my absence. I barely have time to be online any more, but I sure do miss my writing buddies.

    As for the writing question: I’m thinking of Sarah McCoy’s THE BAKER’S DAUGHTER when her nephew, a spoiled little boy, blew their cover to the Nazis… Now there’s a horrifying scene…

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