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 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. 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 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?