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Stinging Caterpillars

Stinging Caterpillars on this Moment of Science.

Everyone knows that bees and wasps, and even some ants, can sting; but how much do you know about stinging caterpillars?

Most caterpillars are generally harmless, even though they may look spiky, almost like tiny cactuses. Those spikes are often just for show. But there are several stinging caterpillars, and they come in various shapes and colors.

Stinging caterpillars are equipped with hollow, quill-like hairs called spines that are connected to poison sacs on the caterpillar's body. Bees and wasps have stinging equipment designed to penetrate the skin, delivering venom directly into the victim. Caterpillar stings, however, are less intentional, one might say. When touched or brushed against these poison spines easily break, and the toxins from the attached poison sacs spill out. Some caterpillar spines will penetrate the skin, but many don't have to penetrate the skin to deliver their toxins. In addition, a caterpillar doesn't even have to be alive for its poison spines to sting.

Reactions to a caterpillar sting can range from mild itching to more severe pain and allergic reactions. It really depends on the caterpillar and the person. A caterpillar sting can cause dermatitis, intestinal problems, and even respiratory disease. In rare cases, hospitalization might be necessary.

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