Hickory Tussock Moth: All You Need to Know in a Quick Guide

Hickory tussock moth caterpillars are fascinating creatures found in North America. These caterpillars belong to the Lophocampa caryae species and are members of the Erebidae family of Lepidoptera. Known for their unique appearance, they have tufts of white and black hairs (setae) and black warts on their bodies.

Adult hickory tussock moths fly between May and June, while their caterpillars are present from July to September. Initially, the young larvae feed together on a few leaves before older larvae become more independent, feeding singly or in small groups. An important note for those who encounter hickory tussock moth caterpillars is to handle them with care, as their hairs can cause a very itchy rash for some people.

Hickory Tussock Moth Overview

Classification and Range

The Hickory Tussock Moth (Lophocampa caryae) is a type of tiger moth belonging to the Erebidae family of Lepidoptera. These moths are commonly found in North America and are known for their distinctive caterpillars.

Features of the Hickory Tussock Moth:

  • Scientific name: Lophocampa caryae
  • Family: Erebidae
  • Order: Lepidoptera
  • Distribution: North America

Habitat and Preferred Hosts

Hickory Tussock Moths have a preference for hardwood trees. Some of their favorite hosts include:

  • Birch
  • Quaking aspen
  • Basswood
  • Black locust

Caterpillars of the Hickory Tussock Moth are present from July to September and feed on the leaves of their preferred host trees. Initially, they feed in groups and later become more solitary or feed in smaller groups. It is important to handle these caterpillars with care, as their hairs can cause an itchy rash for some people.

Life Cycle and Appearance

Eggs and Larvae

The life cycle of the hickory tussock moth begins with the female laying eggs in clusters of up to 100 or more on the underside of leaves during May-June1. These eggs hatch into young larvae that feed together on one or a few closely associated leaves. As they grow older, larvae become more solitary and feed singly or in small groups from July to September1.

For reference, some key characteristics of hickory tussock moth caterpillars include:

  • Distinctive tufts of white and black hairs (setae) on their bodies2
  • Black warts on their bodies2

It is important to handle hickory tussock moth caterpillars with care, as contact with their hairs can cause an itchy rash for some people2.

Cocoons and Adult Moths

The caterpillars eventually spin cocoons, which usually have a minimal impact on trees3. Some common trees where cocoons may be found include oak4 and birch5. These cocoons typically remain through the fall and winter months.

In the spring, adult moths emerge from the cocoons with a wingspan of approximately 1.5 inches (3.8 cm)6. Adult hickory tussock moths are visually similar to other tiger moths, featuring black and white patterns on their wings7. The table below compares hickory tussock moths and adult tiger moths:

Feature Hickory Tussock Moth Adult Tiger Moth
Wingspan 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) Varies, around 1-3 inches (2.5-7.6 cm)
Coloring Black and white patterns on wings Various patterns and colors, including black, white, and orange
Hairs None on adult moths None on adult moths

Every part of the hickory tussock moth’s life cycle, from eggs to larvae to cocoons and adult moths, plays a role in their growth and reproduction. Comprehending their appearance and behaviors is crucial for proper identification and understanding its ecological impact.

Feeding and Host Plants

Common Trees and Shrubs

The hickory tussock moth primarily feeds on various trees and shrubs. Some common host plants include:

  • Hickory: A tree native to North America, used for timber and nut production.
  • Ash: Known for ornamental purposes and durability, utilized in making tools and furniture.
  • Elm: Large trees, appreciated for their strong wood and aesthetics.
  • Oak: Used in making furniture and wine barrels, famous for their distinctive acorns.
  • Walnut: Well-loved for their nuts and hardwood, often used in furniture-making.
  • Willow: A family of relatively fast-growing trees, used in landscaping and making baskets or furniture.

Some other trees and shrubs that can be hosts to the hickory tussock moth are:

  • Pecan: Provides nutritious edible nuts, used in many recipes.
  • Aspen: This tree is admired for its beautiful foliage and is used in making furniture, plywood, and paper.
  • American Hornbeam: Known for its strength, utilized in making bows, tool handles, and golf clubs.
  • Birch: Recognized for their white bark and used in making paper, furniture, and canoes.
  • Quaking Aspen: A subspecies of aspen, known for its shimmering foliage.
  • Basswood: Soft, lightweight wood, commonly used for carving and furniture making.
  • Black Locust: Also known as false acacia, it has strong, rot-resistant wood used for fencing and furniture.
Tree Characteristics Common Uses
Hickory Native to North America, nut production Timber, wood products
Ash Strong, durable wood Tools, furniture
Elm Ornamental, tough wood Landscape, wood products
Oak Acorns, versatile uses Furniture, wine barrels
Walnut Hardwood, edible nuts Furniture, food
Willow Fast-growing, flexibility Furniture, landscaping
Quaking Aspen Famous for shimmering foliage Furniture, plywood, paper
Basswood Soft and lightweight wood Carving, furniture making
Black Locust Strong, rot-resistant wood Fencing, furniture

The hickory tussock moth can often be found in forests where these host plants are available. It is important to protect these trees while managing moth populations to ensure a healthy ecosystem.

Defensive Mechanisms and Human Interactions

How They Defend Themselves

Hickory tussock moth caterpillars have a unique defense mechanism that involves their setae, or hair-like structures. These setae contain a mild venom which can cause an itchy rash if it comes into contact with human skin. Birds, bats, and other potential predators are also deterred by this defense mechanism.

Caterpillar Defense Mechanisms:

  • Venomous setae
  • Itchy rash for humans and predators

Tips for Handling Caterpillars

It is essential to handle hickory tussock moth caterpillars with care, as their setae may cause skin irritation or allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. Some general tips for minimizing risk when handling or encountering these caterpillars include:

  1. Wearing gloves when handling the caterpillar
  2. Avoiding direct contact with skin
  3. Washing skin with soap and water if contact occurs
  4. Applying calamine lotion to soothe irritation or itching
  5. Seeking medical attention if a severe rash or allergic reaction occurs

Geographical Distribution

These caterpillars can be found in various regions, ranging from New Brunswick, Wisconsin, and Texas to North Carolina, Illinois, and Mexico. They are commonly observed in deciduous woods, leaf litter, and along streams.

Pros and Cons of Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillars

Pros Cons
Play a role in maintaining the ecological balance May cause itchy rashes and allergic reactions in humans
Can be aesthetically pleasing Can defoliate hardwood trees in some cases

Remember to stay cautious when encountering hickory tussock moth caterpillars in the wild, and always handle with care to avoid any potential skin irritation or allergic reactions.

Predators, Threats, and Control Methods

Natural Predators

Hickory tussock moth caterpillars have several natural predators, which help keep their population in check. Some examples of these predators include:

  • Birds
  • Parasitic wasps

Threats

The hickory tussock caterpillar can be a threat to a variety of hardwood trees, particularly in Maine where they have a fondness for birch, quaking aspen, basswood, and black locust.

Population Management

Scientific management strategies for controlling hickory tussock caterpillar populations can help minimize their threat to host plants. One effective method involves monitoring the caterpillar’s life stages, such as eggs and instars, to predict and prevent their impact.

Overall, understanding the natural predators, threats, and management strategies for the hickory tussock moth caterpillar can aid in keeping their populations under control and protecting their host plants.

Footnotes

  1. Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillar – Penn State Extension 2

  2. Hickory Tussock – Home and Garden IPM from Cooperative Extension 2 3

  3. Tussock Moth Caterpillars in Florida – Entomology and Nematology Department

  4. Common Insect Pests of Hickory – University of Kentucky

  5. HICKORY TUSSOCK MOTH – Maine

  6. Wagner, David L. Caterpillars Of Eastern North America: A Guide To Identification. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005. Print.

  7. Tiger Moths: Erebidae – Description, Lifecycle, and Interesting Facts

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Hickory Tussock Moth

 

Dear Bug Man,
My son found some Hickory Tussock caterpillars last fall, which he put in his "bug box". We fed them and provided mulch, etc. One died, but the other survived and has been in its cocoon all winter. I have read they emerge in May or June. Is there any special care once they emerge and how soon should it be let out? And do these moths cause alot of damage to trees?
Thank you,
Judy

Dear Judy,
The Hickory Tussock Moth, Halisidota caryae, rarely is plentiful enough to do major damage to the Hickory trees it feeds upon. The adults, like many Tiger Moths, do not feed as adults. You can release the moth after its wings have fully expanded. It will fly when it is ready.

Letter 2 – Hickory Tussock Moth

 

Banded Tussock Moth Caterpillar?
January 11, 2010
This caterpillar was found October 19, 2009 in area between pond and wetland woods. I think it is a banded tussock moth, but I am not sure and I would like to record it correctly.
Michelle
Western New York State-US

Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillar
Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Hi Michelle,
There is much variability in the coloration of the caterpillar of the Banded Tussock Moth, Halysidota tessallaris, which may be viewed on BugGuide.  Our doubt, and probably your doubt as well, stems from the very black dorsal line evident on your specimen, which is lacking in most of the BugGuide images.  The description, according to the Caterpillars of the Eastern Forests website, is:  “Gray, dirty tan to yellow-brown with long paired white and black lashes on second and third thoracic segments. Those of second thoracic segment projecting forward beyond head. Eighth abdominal segment with third set of lashes. Dark medial dorsal tufts often forming dorsal line.”  We think a closer match is the Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillar, Lophocampa caryae, which is also pictured on BugGuide.  Your caterpillar is one of the Arctiid Tussock Moths, and not a member of the Tussock Moth family Lymantriidae.

Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillar
Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Letter 3 – Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillar

 

Fuzzy black and white caterpillar
Location:  Torrington, CT on August 29th 2010
August 29, 2010 9:26 am
I spotted this beautiful caterpillar on my side porch and would love to know more about it. Love your site. Keep up the good work!
Jennifer

Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Hi Jennifer,
Your caterpillar sure looks like a Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillar,
Lophocampa caryae, to us.  You can compare your individual to images posted to BugGuide.

Thank you so much for your help. I’m always amazed by what is right in front of you if you just bother to look. Bugs rule!

Letter 4 – Hickory Tussock Moth

 

Hickory Tussock Moth Hatched Mid January…
Location: Albany, NY
January 19, 2011 9:29 pm
Hello. When it got cold here, we pulled back our daughter’s curtains only to see a cocoon attached. We did not move it and it became a part of our nightly ritual ”Good Night Cocoon,” etc. (My daughter is 3). My husband & I thought it had not survived and out of nowhere, middle January, it hatched tonight. Presently it’s in a tupperware with holes & some indoor plant clippings. It’s in the 20s outside and so, I can’t release it. What should I do? I have read that it doesn’t eat as an adult, is that true? Thank you for your help.
Signature: Take care, Kim

Hickory Tussock Moth

Hi Kim,
Thanks so much for writing us your sweet email with this image of an adult Hickory Tussock Moth,
Lophocampa caryae.  The big problem with a cocoon or chrysalis in a heated home is that often the adult will emerge indoors in winter when it cannot find a mate.  This happens frequently with captive caterpillars, but in your case, this unfortunate Hickory Tussock Moth wandered into your comfortable, temperate home on its own.  You are correct that many adult moths, especially Giant Silkmoths and Tiger Moths (your Hickory Tussock Moth is in the Tiger Moth family Arctiidae) do not feed as adults.  You can see BugGuide for more information on the Hickory Tussock Moth.

Letter 5 – Hickory Tussock Moth

 

Subject: Yellow/Brown Moth in Ohio
Location: North-east Ohio
July 7, 2012 12:14 pm
I found this beautiful critter clinging to my screen upon returning home from a long night at work, probably around 7 in the morning. It stayed there all day, greeting me again that night around 10 when I was leaving again. This was a few weeks ago, so about early to mid June. line. It wasn’t all that big though I didn’t take a measurement, less than an inch I do believe.
Signature: Crazy Moth Lady

Hickory Tussock Moth

Dear Crazy Moth Lady,
While we recognized this as a Tiger Moth, we were uncertain of the species, but upon researching BugGuide, we quickly identified it as a Hickory Tussock Moth,
Lophocampa caryae.  According to BugGuide:  “larvae feed on leaves of ash, oak, hickory, maple, elm, and other trees (1); also hops, Virginia creeper, raspberry, rose, sumac, and blueberry.”

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

11 thoughts on “Hickory Tussock Moth: All You Need to Know in a Quick Guide”

  1. My daughter found a Hickory Tussock Moth in our yard. She put it in a jar & it now is Cocooned! Were excited to see what it look’s like! Ty for your images!

    Reply
  2. So we found one on a shoe inside the house last night. We put it in the house in a jar with some leaves while we slept to try to figue out in the morning where in our huge yard it came from… (100 acres) when we awoke it had pupate d and now we have a cocoon in a leaf and stick!! What is the best thing to do for this sweet moth? Keep it outside in the jar? (I wouldn’t know how to attach it to anything… Or in the basement near the garage so it stays cool?? How long will it stay there? Does it need to be “rained” on…? Does it need sunlight? Etc…
    Thanks for your help!!!

    Reply
  3. So we found one on a shoe inside the house last night. We put it in the house in a jar with some leaves while we slept to try to figue out in the morning where in our huge yard it came from… (100 acres) when we awoke it had pupate d and now we have a cocoon in a leaf and stick!! What is the best thing to do for this sweet moth? Keep it outside in the jar? (I wouldn’t know how to attach it to anything… Or in the basement near the garage so it stays cool?? How long will it stay there? Does it need to be “rained” on…? Does it need sunlight? Etc…
    Thanks for your help!!!

    Reply
    • We would recommend that the cocoon be kept where it is exposed to conditions similar to the outdoors. The cocoon should not dry out entirely. A sheltered location would be best. You do not want a glass jar to be filled with rain water, however, being rained on is not a problem. We have not heard of sunlight being a critical factor.

      Reply
  4. I found two of these adorable little fuzzies in my house. It has been getting very cold at night so I have kept them so far. Should I let them go? I’ve been finding dead ones out in the yard recently…. What should I do for these adorable little creatures to ensure they are well taken care of?

    Reply
  5. The beginning of March I found a Hickory Tussock laying eggs on a bookcase in my house. I left it alone and eventually I found it dead in a basket. I feel terrible about this and wanted to know if they die after they lay eggs. What is the lifespan of an adult female moth? I have searched every site online and no one clearly answers this question.
    Thank you

    Reply
  6. The beginning of March I found a Hickory Tussock laying eggs on a bookcase in my house. I left it alone and eventually I found it dead in a basket. I feel terrible about this and wanted to know if they die after they lay eggs. What is the lifespan of an adult female moth? I have searched every site online and no one clearly answers this question.
    Thank you

    Reply
  7. Found white fuzzy/black body caterpillars on a tree in backyard. They were close together and would jerk as if electrocuted, in unionism, every few seconds. What in the world was going on?

    Reply

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