Tussock moth caterpillars are native insects that can suddenly become quite abundant in some areas. These hairy creatures are known to feed on certain types of trees, including oak trees, causing damage to foliage. Dealing with them naturally can help protect your plants, trees, and natural surroundings.
There are several methods for controlling tussock moth caterpillar populations without resorting to chemicals or pesticides. These natural techniques are aimed at preserving the environment while ensuring the health and beauty of your greenery.
Some natural methods include:
- Introducing beneficial insects like ladybugs
- Removing caterpillar-infested branches and leaves
- Creating physical barriers to prevent access to plants
Identifying Tussock Moth Caterpillars
Tussock moth caterpillars can be easily identified by the following features:
- Hairy body
- Red head
- Light-colored tufts of hair along the back
- Red spots on top
- Orange stripe along each side
These distinctive features help distinguish them from other caterpillars, such as the rusty tussock moth1.
Tussock moth caterpillars are typically found during the summer months, when they feed on leaves. They hatch from eggs laid by adult moths in spring2.
Caterpillars vs Moths:
One helpful characteristic for identifying tussock moth caterpillars is their hairy appearance. In particular, the tufts of hair on their back are unique to this type of caterpillar. Additionally, the red spots and orange stripes can serve as reliable identifiers.
In conclusion, if you notice caterpillars in your garden or on your trees with the aforementioned characteristics, it is likely that you are dealing with tussock moth caterpillars.
Life Cycle and Feeding Habits
Tussock moth caterpillars go through a life cycle that starts with eggs laid on leaves or cocoons in spring. Once hatched, tiny hairy caterpillars begin to feed and grow1. These caterpillars can inflict significant damage to plants due to their strong appetites2. Adult moths fly and lay eggs around May-June3.
For example, the feeding habits of two common tussock moth caterpillars:
- Milkweed Tussock Moth Caterpillars2: They feed in clusters during early instars, causing damage to milkweed plants.
- Hickory Tussock Moth Caterpillars3: They feed in groups during their early stages and become more solitary as they grow.
Tussock moth caterpillars mostly infest trees and plants during spring, and their larvae can spread using silk strands4. To manage the infestation naturally, introduce Bacillus thuringiensis5, a soil-dwelling bacterium, to your garden or shrubs. It’s an organic method of eliminating the caterpillars without causing damage to plants.
Pros and Cons of using Bacillus thuringiensis:
|Organic and safe for plants
|May need multiple applications
|Targets caterpillars specifically
|Not effective against adult moths
In summary, understanding the life cycle and feeding habits of tussock moth caterpillars can help develop effective strategies for managing infestations in gardens and keeping trees and plants healthy.
Natural Control Methods
One effective way to control tussock moth caterpillars is by introducing beneficial insects in your garden, such as:
Predatory insects: Parasitic wasps and lady beetles can help control tussock moth caterpillar populations.
Birds: Encouraging birds to visit your garden by providing food, water, and shelter can also help control these pests.
Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt): A naturally occurring bacterium, Bt is effective against tussock moth caterpillars when ingested. Apply Bt on affected plants, but note that it can harm butterflies as well.
Physically removing tussock moth caterpillars involves:
Handpicking: Wear gloves and collect the caterpillars from your plants.
Traps: Use sticky traps or pheromone-based traps to catch adult moths and reduce their reproduction.
Using natural pesticides can provide an effective and environmentally friendly solution for controlling tussock moth caterpillars. Some options include:
Neem oil: Derived from the neem tree, this natural pesticide can be applied to affected plants to deter caterpillar feeding.
Pyrethrins: Extracted from chrysanthemum flowers, pyrethrins are insecticidal compounds that can be used as a natural pesticide.
|Targets specific pests, eco-friendly
|May take time to establish
|Immediate action, no chemicals
|Labor-intensive, may not be feasible for large infestations
|Less harmful to the environment, pollinators
|May require multiple applications, potential harm to beneficial insects
Remember to be cautious when using any control method, as some can harm beneficial insects, birds, and pollinators such as bees and butterflies. A combination of these natural control methods can provide an effective and eco-friendly way to manage tussock moth caterpillar populations in your organic garden.
Prevention and Maintenance Strategies
To keep your garden safe from tussock moth caterpillars, adopt these preventative and maintenance strategies:
Inspect your trees and plants regularly, especially in spring when the caterpillars are most active.
Wear gardening gloves when handling plants, as the caterpillars’ hairs can cause skin irritation.
Remove and destroy cocoons found on trees or near your house.
Introduce beneficial insects like ladybugs or lacewings to your garden, which can naturally reduce caterpillar populations.
Consider planting sage, as it is known to deter many pests.
|May be time-consuming
|Natural pest control
|Easy to care for
Preventing tussock moths and caterpillars helps maintain the overall health and appearance of your landscape. Remember to stay vigilant, and keep your gardening gloves handy.
Safety Considerations and Tips
When dealing with tussock moth caterpillars, safety is important for both humans and the environment. Here are some guidelines and tips to keep in mind:
- Soapy water can be an effective and non-toxic method to remove tussock moth caterpillars. Combine water and a few drops of dish soap in a spray bottle, then spray it directly on the caterpillars.
- Neem oil is another natural option that can help control these pests. However, be sure to follow the label instructions and avoid contact with skin, pets, or children.
- Wear gardening gloves when handling caterpillars to prevent itching and rash.
- Use tweezers or a broom to remove the pests without directly touching them.
Watch out for beneficial insects:
- Be cautious not to harm beneficial insects, such as ladybugs or bees, while treating for tussock moth caterpillars. They can help keep the population in check and maintain a healthy garden ecosystem.
Here’s a comparison table for some popular natural methods:
|Non-toxic, easily available
|May not affect all caterpillars
|Can be harmful if not used properly
Remember to be cautious and always prioritize safety when dealing with tussock moth caterpillars. Keep pets, children, and beneficial insects in mind while implementing any control methods.
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 – Definite Tussock Moth Caterpillar
Subject: Furry Green Caterpillar?
Location: Northeast Georgia (near Helen)
June 27, 2017 12:32 pm
Found 2 of these guys on my Pothos plant this morning, and no idea what they are.
They crawled right onto the stick and I moved them away to a tree.
Letter 2 – Southern Tussock Moth Caterpillar
Subject: Weird bug outside my house
Location: Hialeah, Fl
February 4, 2016 2:54 pm
This is the second bug like this that I see it likes to just camp out on walls outside the house.
Signature: I don’t know
This is a Southern Tussock Moth Caterpillar, Dasychira meridionalis. According to BugGuide, the caterpillar: “Prefers Oak, but is found on a variety of deciduous trees.” Florida Nature Photography has excellent images depicting the life cycle, including the cocoon and adult moth.
Letter 3 – Western Tussock Moth Caterpillar
Location: Los Altos, CA (South San Francisco bay area)
May 1, 2011 10:53 pm
We saw this guy today (May 1, 2011) at a park in Los Altos California. The pic was taken about 7:30pm and it was about 75 degrees F. It was crawling on an artificial rock play climbing structure on the playground. Can you help us identify it?
Signature: Rolf F
Your Western Tussock Moth Caterpillar, Orgyia vetusta, shares many similar characteristics with its close relatives in the genus. BugGuide only reports this species from California, though its relatives including the White Marked Tussock Moth, Orgyia leucostigma, are found throughout North America. You should handle the Western Tussock Moth Caterpillar and its relatives with caution because BugGuide notes: “Contact with hairs may cause an allergic reaction.”
Letter 4 – Southern Tussock Moth Caterpillar
Subject: what the heck is this?
Location: Dunedin, Florida
May 5, 2013 6:07 pm
This was on the wall outside my apartment door. I thought it was a caterpillar or moth or something that was going to kill me….can you tell me what it is? And if you can, I hope you don’t mind if I post it on facebook so others can know about your site. Thanks!
Signature: Carol Borrelli
Subject: What’s that bug?
Location: Dunedin, Florida
May 5, 2013 8:20 pm
Earlier today, we had a caterpillar sitting for hour on the exterior wall next to our apartment’s door. I eventually scooted a piece of paper underneath it and repatriated it to the front of the building, primarily to appease my wife and also to protect it from other tenants smashing it. Nevertheless, I am curious what it was that we saw there.
Thank you very much for your time and effort,
Dear Carol and Roland,
We are guessing from your combined requests that you are a married couple. We think it is sweet that you each contacted us, and in an odd way, it reminds us of the “Starbucks scene” in Best in Show where Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock meet at Starbucks, but at different Starbucks across the street from one another. This is a Southern Tussock Moth Caterpillar, Dasychira meridionalis, or another member of the genus, and you can compare your caterpillar to this photo from BugGuide. Some Tussock Moth Caterpillars have irritating hairs, but we are not certain if this is one of those species.
Letter 5 – White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar
identify this picture
Despite being annoyed at the terse demanding tone of this query, we are posting a relatively lengthy answer, however our personal reply was equally brief. This is a White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar, originally Hemerocampa leucostigma and now identified as Orgyia leucostigma. It is a pest on most shade and ornamental trees. They can become so numerous that they defoliate trees. Though the caterpillar is quite beautiful, the moth is small and inconspicuous.
Letter 6 – White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar
Subject: Looks like an Alien!
Location: Near Toledo Ohio
October 6, 2015 7:44 am
I saw two of these on the door to my gym. Very cool looking, and bright colored. Can you tell me what this is?
This is either a White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar, Orgyia leucostigma, or a closely related species in the same genus. According to BugGuide: “CAUTION: Avoid handling the caterpillar, as its hair is known to cause allergic reactions, especially in areas of the body with sensitive skin (e.g. back, stomach, inner arms). Seek medical treatment if a severe reaction occurs.”
Letter 7 – Flightless Female Western Tussock Moth and Egg Mass
Subject: Unknown Bug
Location: California Bay
November 20, 2012 11:30 pm
Hello there. There are these strange looking bugs that have been seen near where I live (Pacifica and San Bruno California) and I have no idea what they are. Can anyone identify them? I’ve never seen anything like this before!
I’ve seen more than one now, they are very hairy and squishy. They have at least 4 or 6 legs (near their head) and they are always attached to a hairy sack with a hallow black exoskeleton inside and next to what looks like an egg sack. They have wing-like appendages that are small and hairy near their heads.
Signature: Alexsis Johansen
Your description is perfect and it could not be more accurate. This is a flightless female Western Tussock Moth, Orgyia vetusta, and we identified it on the Moth Photographers Group Flightless Females page, but there is even more information on the Moth Photographers Group Tussock Moth Parasitoids page that documents the life history as well as a significant parasitoid predator, a species of Tachinid Fly. According to Joyce Gross of the University of Berkeley: “Adult females are wingless. When they emerge from the cocoon (eclosure) they remain upon it and release a pheromone, a sex-attractant that brings males to her. The large antenna of the male is very sensitive to the species-specific pheromone and any males downwind of the female will quickly follow the scent to her location.” There is also a very nice photo on BugGuide of a newly emerged female. You can see photos of the caterpillars of the Western Tussock Moth in our archives.
Update from November 22
Now that I have viewed the website I have realized that I have been seeing those western tussock moth caterpillars my whole life and I never would have guessed they would turn into that moth! That is truly amazing. Here is a photo that I took of the caterpillar a few months ago. Thank you so much for your response!
More than a week has passes since you submitted the caterpillar photo, but we were away for Thanksgiving, and there is way more mail in our inbox than we can read. We are updating the posting with your new photo.
Letter 8 – Probably Western Tussock Moth Caterpillar
Subject: unknown tussock moth caterpillar
Location: Napa, California
April 12, 2015 10:10 am
Friends who live in Napa California recently photographed this caterpillar on their property.
After going through your caterpillar pages, we concluded it was a tussock moth caterpillar but couldn’t match the color pattern with any of the species shown. The closest seems to be that of the
Western Tussock Moth. What is your identification of this caterpillar?
Signature: Mike Walsh
There are several species of Tussock Moths in the genus Orgyia that are found in California, and we believe this is most likely the Caterpillar of the Western Tussock Moth, Orgyia vetusta, but it may be impossible to determine the exact species with an image since all members of the genus have very similar looking caterpillars and there is also much variation within the species. See this BugGuide image for comparison.
Letter 9 – Western Tussock Moth Caterpillars
Pacific Tussock Moth
I’m just one of those people who work at the Exploratorium who loves your site, so I thought you might like to see an invader that concerned me earlier this year. The caterpillar in question was eating all the ground cover over a large area on the side of the hill where I live on Mount San Bruno, just south of San Francisco. Here’s what it looked like on the human-scale: Note the brown eaten area. Not a leaf left! I consulted a local expert and he informed me that the culprit was the Pacific Tussock Moth, Hemerocampa vetusta, which I couldn’t find in your collection of caterpillars, so here you go – a small portion of the MILLIONS that were out there: And a close-up: Keep up the good work!
Thank you for the nice letter. As you stated, this is a new species for us. We always like to research new species. We did locate a caterpillar on BugGuide that looks identical to yours that is identified as the Western Tussock Moth Caterpillar, Orgyia vetusta. The genus formerly known as Hemerocampa is now recognized as Orgyia. Thank you for the images.
Letter 10 – Western Tussock Moth Caterpillar
We were watering the plants in the yard and came across three of these on our geranium and one on our rosebush. We live on the central coast in California and have never seen these in our yard. The closest match we could find is the White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar. Watcha’ think?
Jon and Emily
Hi Jon and Emily,
A closely related species to the White Marked Tussock Moth is the Western Tussock Moth, Orgyia vetusta. That is your caterpillar.
Letter 11 – Western Tussock Moth Caterpillar
Subject: What is this bug?
Location: Vacaville, California
April 4, 2015 2:22 pm
We came across this upon a park drinking fountain.
It looks like it has been painted with the brushes upon its back.
What is it?
Signature: Painted Amazed
Dear Painted Amazed,
Earlier today we posted an image that might be a Western Tussock Moth Caterpillar, Orgyia vetusta, but based on the nearly identical similarity between your individual and this image posted to BugGuide, we are quite certain your caterpillar is a Western Tussock Moth Caterpillar.
Letter 12 – Western Tussock Moth Caterpillar
Location: San Mateo, CA
May 7, 2016 6:49 pm
Found this in San Mateo, Ca. Is this caterpillar poisonous? What does it eat?
This appears to be the caterpillar of a Western Tussock Moth, Orgyia vetusta, which is pictured on BugGuide. BugGuide makes no mention of irritation caused by the hairs, but other members of the genus including the White Marked Tussock Moth are known for having urticating hairs. Of that species, BugGuide notes: “CAUTION: Contact with hairs may cause an allergic reaction.” According to the Moth Photographers Group: “Dozens if not hundreds of these caterpillars have been busy eating leaves on a Coast Live Oak.”
Letter 13 – Western Tussock Moth Caterpillar
Subject: What is this Caterpillar?
August 16, 2017 6:00 pm
My guess is some sort of Tussock Moth?
Found in a Forest in California
We agree with you. We believe your Tussock Moth Caterpillar is the Western Tussock Moth Caterpillar, Orgyia vetusta, based on this BugGuide image.
Letter 14 – Western Tussock Moth Caterpillar
Subject: caterpillar with a mohawk
Geographic location of the bug: TONASKET WA
Time: 10:26 AM EDT
Your letter to the bugman: We were curious as to who this is. Having grown up in TX, my husband knew all about urticating hairs; hence the stick! Better safe than sorry. It was near fir, pine, sarviceberry, chokecherry, wild roses and currant for the bigger forage plants we have. Other than that, it’s a real dry climate. Thanks.
How you want your letter signed: Cathy
Your subject line caught our attention because of the mohawk description. Based on its color and markings and your location, we believe this is a Western Tussock Moth Caterpillar as pictured on BugGuide, but we would not rule out a similar looking relative in the same genus. Handle Tussock Moth Caterpillars with caution. The hairs might cause a skin reaction in sensitive individuals.
Letter 15 – Whitemarked Tussock Moth Caterpillar
Help me PLEASE
All I can say is WOW!!!!! What a WONDERFUL site. The BEST bug site
I’ve seen. Thank you.
I love to photograph all sorts of “Creepy Crawlers and Fliers” I live
in Chicago, Illinois. I’m also including a couple photo’s of what I believe to be a White marked Tussock Moth caterpillar that I found in Minnesota that you might like for your site. Thanks again for having a GREAT site.
Your Whitemarked Tussock Moth Caterpillar photos are studio quality. They remind us of fashion photos.
Letter 16 – White Marked Tussock Moth
Not sure what this is
Location: Mid-Atlantic, Delaware
September 22, 2010 10:13 pm
Found this critter exploring our garden pot on our back deck today (9/22/10). I’ve never seen a caterpillar with antennae like that or with those things along its back. Any idea what this is?
This is a White Marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar, Orgyia leucostigma, or another member of the genus. You may find additional information in our archives and on Bugguide.
Letter 17 – White Marked Tussock Moth
White-marked Tussock Moth (Orgyia leucostigma)
Location: Naperville, IL
August 16, 2011 9:09 pm
You just posted a white marked tussock moth caterpillar. I believe this is the moth version!
Signature: Dori Eldridge
Thanks so much for sending us a photo of an adult male White Marked Tussock Moth, AKA Rusty Vapor Moth to accompany the image of the caterpillar we just posted. Some of your previous submissions have become part of a new tag: Bug Humanitarian Award.
I am honored, thank you. I believe you and your partners deserve heaps of accolades for your monumental efforts to educate and entertain. I can not sing your praises highly enough. All the best to you.
Letter 18 – Whitemarked Tussock Moth Caterpillar
Subject: Insect ID, please.
Location: Cleveland, TN
August 31, 2016 5:34 am
Found this little fuzzy “thing” on the backside of a leaf on my River Birch tree. Never have seen anything like this before so would like to know exactly what it is. Can you help?
Signature: Rick McCormick
You can see by comparing your caterpillar to the one in this BugGuide image that this is a Whitemarked Tussock Moth Caterpillar, Orgyia leucostigma. According to BugGuide: “CAUTION: Contact with hairs may cause an allergic reaction.”
Letter 19 – Female Whitemarked Tussock Moth with Eggs
Subject: Moth or Not Moth?
Location: Holly Springs, MS.
October 1, 2016 4:45 am
As I was a “bug queen” for a day a few years ago on WTB, I thought I would ask about something I’ve never seen before.
The enclosed pics are of the siding in my house. There appears to be a “nest” to the left of a white moth. However, I did NOT see any wings on this “moth.” The nest had soft dried grass to the left, but the white part to the right was hard like plastic.
Would appreciate some bug love with an answer as to what my new critter friend is.
Thanks for all the wonderful info you give to your fans!
Signature: Stephanie Berry
There are several groups of moths in which the female is flightless, and we believe your moth is a Whitemarked Tussock Moth, Orgyia leucostigma, or a closely related member of the genus. Tussock Moths are also known as Vaporer Moths. Here is an image from BugGuide. According to BugGuide: “Flightless females lay a froth-covered mass of up to 300 eggs after mating.”
Thank you so much for the info!! I never knew there were flightless moths!
You do an amazing job for your readers!!!
Steph aka Ellie Mae
Letter 20 – Wingless White-Marked Tussock Moth lays Eggs
Subject: Freaky egg laying, giant fuzzy flea?! 🙂
Geographic location of the bug: Union County, Ohio
Time: 04:29 PM EDT
This critter is doing its thing on my chicken coop door. It looks like a big, fuzzy flea or tick. It’s about 1/2-3/4 inch long. It’s laying a gob of eggs on a sort of cocoon. I poked the cocoon and it moved, and the critter moved too. WEIRD! What is it!?
How you want your letter signed: Curious in Ohio
Dear Curious in Ohio,
There are many flightless female moths, and we quickly identified your White-Marked Tussock Moth laying eggs thanks to this BugGuide image. According to BugGuide: “Flightless females lay a froth-covered mass of up to 300 eggs after mating.”