Tiger Moth Caterpillar: Poisonous Woolly Bears

The Tiger moth caterpillar, also called Woolly bear, lives for about 10 days unless they overwinter, and are toxic because of the plants they consume. Still, you can care for them and raise Tiger moths in a plastic container with some host plant leaves.

Tiger Moth Caterpillar Species

Tiger moth caterpillars belong to the family Erebidae and are known for their often colorful and distinctive appearances. There are numerous species of tiger moths with a wide variety of caterpillar types. Here are a few examples of tiger moth caterpillars:

  1. Woolly Bears (Pyrrharctia isabella): One of the most recognizable tiger moth caterpillars, woolly bears are known for their distinct black and orange bands. They are commonly found in North America and are often seen crossing roads in the fall. They hibernate through the winter and resume feeding in the spring.
  2. Spilosoma Species (e.g., Yellow Bear Moth): Caterpillars of various Spilosoma species are referred to as “woolly bears” as well. The yellow bear moth caterpillar, for example, has a yellow or orange coloration with black bristles.
  3. Lophocampa caryae (Hickory Tussock Moth): These caterpillars have a striking appearance with tufts of long, white hairs and a black and white pattern. Despite their appearance, they can cause skin irritation if handled.
  4. Isia isabella (Banded Tussock Moth): These caterpillars have alternating bands of black and white hairs and a prominent red head. They are found in various parts of North America.
  5. Grammia Species (e.g., Virginia Tiger Moth): These caterpillars often have vibrant colors, such as red, orange, or yellow, with black spots. The Virginia tiger moth caterpillar, for instance, has a black body with red spots and long, white hairs.
  6. Arctia caja (Garden Tiger Moth): The caterpillar of the garden tiger moth has a striking appearance with black and orange bands and dense tufts of hairs that resemble a fuzzy carpet.
  7. Hypomecis roboraria (Great Oak Beauty): This caterpillar is known for its unique appearance, with its body shaped like a twisted twig. It’s well camouflaged among branches.
  8. Coscinocera hercules (Hercules Moth): While not native to North America, the caterpillar of the Hercules Moth from Australia is one of the largest and heaviest caterpillars in the world. It’s green with various markings and spines.

What is the life cycle of a Tiger moth?

The life cycle of a tiger moth caterpillar goes through several stages, including egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult.

Here’s an overview of each stage:

EggThe life cycle of a tiger moth begins with the female tiger moth laying eggs. These eggs are usually laid on plant leaves, and the number of eggs laid can vary depending on the species.

The eggs are often small and spherical, and they may be laid individually or in clusters. The color and appearance of the eggs can vary among different tiger moth species.
LarvaOnce the eggs hatch, the larvae, commonly known as caterpillars, emerge. Tiger moth caterpillars have a distinctive appearance, often with tufts of hair or spines.

Tiger moth caterpillars go through multiple instars, or molting stages, as they grow.
During each instar, the caterpillar sheds its outer skin to accommodate its increasing size.

The caterpillar feeds voraciously on plant leaves to fuel its growth. Some tiger moth caterpillars are known to be quite colorful and may have warning colors to deter predators.
Pupa/CrysalisAfter the caterpillar reaches its final instar, it undergoes a transformation into a pupa, also known as a chrysalis. This stage is a resting phase during which the caterpillar’s body undergoes significant changes.

Inside the pupa, the caterpillar’s tissues reorganize and transform into the adult structures of the tiger moth.
AdulthoodThe adult tiger moth emerges from the pupal stage. The adult moth has wings and is sexually mature, ready to reproduce and continue the life cycle.

Tiger moths vary widely in their appearance and coloration, with some species featuring vibrant patterns and colors.

Adult tiger moths are typically nocturnal and are attracted to light sources at night. They may engage in mating behaviors and lay eggs to start the cycle anew.
Isabella tiger moth
Isabella tiger moth

What is the lifespan of a Tiger moth caterpillar?

On average, tiger moth caterpillars go through several molting stages (instars) as they grow and develop. The time between each molt can vary, but it’s often around 5-10 days. The total number of instars can also vary among species.

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For example, the well-known woolly bear caterpillar which is a type of tiger moth caterpillar, goes through approximately six instars over the course of several weeks. This caterpillar overwinters as a nearly full-grown larva, resuming its growth and feeding in the spring before pupating.

Other tiger moth caterpillars may have shorter or longer development periods based on their specific biology and environmental conditions. Once they have gone through their final instar, they will pupate and transform into an adult moth.

What does a Tiger moth caterpillar eat?

These Woolly worms feed on the following food plants

  • Maple trees
  • Grasses
  • Clovers
  • Elm trees
  • Sunflowers
  • Other herbaceous plants

Where is the Tiger moth caterpillar found?

They are usually found in the grasslands, woodlands, gardens, and rivers of Europe, central and northern Asia, and North America — mostly Canada. Sometimes they visit New York and Missouri.

Tiger Moth Caterpillar Host Plants

Tiger moth caterpillars, like many other caterpillar species, have specific host plants that they feed on during their larval stage. These host plants are essential for their growth and development.

Here are some examples of host plants that various tiger moth caterpillar species feed on:

Woolly Bears

  • Host Plants: A wide range of plants, including clover, grasses, dandelion, nettle, sunflower, asters, and various other herbaceous plants.

Hickory Tussock Moth

  • Host Plants: Various trees, especially hickory, walnut, oak, and other hardwood trees.

Yellow Bear Moth

  • Host Plants: Plants from the Asteraceae (daisy) family, including sunflowers, dandelions, and asters.

Virginia Tiger Moth

  • Host Plants: Different herbaceous plants and shrubs, including clover, plantain, and legumes.

Garden Tiger Moth

  • Host Plants: Various herbaceous plants, including dandelion, nettle, and clover.

Hercules Moth

  • Host Plants: Eucalyptus trees, particularly certain species within the eucalyptus genus.

Great Oak Beauty

  • Host Plants: Oak trees, as the name suggests. This caterpillar is well-camouflaged to resemble a twig.

Is the Tiger moth caterpillar poisonous?

Many tiger moth caterpillars possess a defense mechanism involving urticating (stinging) hairs that can cause skin irritation, itching, or even a mild allergic reaction in some individuals. However, it’s important to note that not all tiger moth caterpillars are poisonous in the sense of being harmful if touched.

The urticating hairs are often present on the bodies of these caterpillars and are used as a deterrent against predators. When threatened, the caterpillar may release these hairs, which can become airborne and cause irritation upon contact with human skin.

While the effects of coming into contact with urticating hairs can vary from person to person, it’s generally a good idea to avoid handling tiger moth caterpillars or any caterpillars with spines, bristles, or unusual structures on their bodies. If you do handle caterpillars, it’s advisable to wash your hands thoroughly afterward and avoid touching your face or eyes.

It’s also worth noting that some tiger moth species are known to have toxins that are concentrated in their bodies during the caterpillar stage. These toxins are derived from the plants they consume and can serve as a deterrent to predators. However, the toxicity of these caterpillars can vary widely, and it’s best to err on the side of caution and avoid handling caterpillars that you’re not familiar with.

Can you touch Tiger moth caterpillars?

Tiger moth caterpillar in hand
Tiger moth caterpillar in hand

As a general rule of caution, it’s advisable to avoid touching tiger moth caterpillars, especially those that have visible spines, bristles, or tufts of hair on their bodies.

How to handle reaction to Tiger moth caterpillar?

Handling adverse skin reactions to Tiger moth caterpillar “stings” is similar to how you would treat other insect bites.

Once you notice that the area is starting to swell, thoroughly wash the area with water and mild soap. Elevate the affected area (preferably higher than the chest level) and place an ice pack. Leave it in the area for around 15 to 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, you may also take antihistamines to further help decrease the swelling and tenderness. Make sure to consult with your physician before doing this, especially if you have a medical history of adverse reactions to certain medications.

Can you take care of the Tiger moth caterpillar?

Yes, it is possible to care and raise tiger moth caterpillars, but there are important considerations to keep in mind to ensure their well-being and your safety.

Here are some guidelines if you’re interested in taking care of tiger moth caterpillars:

  • Identification: First, make sure you correctly identify the caterpillar as a tiger moth caterpillar and not a species with potentially harmful or toxic characteristics.
  • Habitat: Create a suitable habitat for the caterpillar. This includes providing appropriate leaves or plants for them to feed on, as well as ensuring proper ventilation and temperature control.
  • Container: Place the caterpillar in a suitable container, such as a well-ventilated jar or terrarium. Make sure the container is spacious enough for the caterpillar to move around comfortably.
  • Feeding: Offer fresh leaves or plant material that the specific tiger moth caterpillar species feeds on. Research the caterpillar’s dietary preferences to ensure you’re providing the right food source.
  • Cleaning: Regularly clean the container to remove frass (caterpillar waste) and any spoiled or wilted plant material.
  • Protection: When handling the caterpillar, use caution to avoid touching any spines, hairs, or bristles. Wear gloves if necessary.
  • Pupation: As the caterpillar nears the pupation stage, provide a suitable substrate (such as soil) for it to create its cocoon or chrysalis.
  • Release: After the caterpillar pupates and transforms into an adult moth, you can choose to release it back into its natural habitat. Adult moths have specific habitat and behavioral needs that may be challenging to replicate in captivity.

What to read next: Identification of 7 Black and Yellow Caterpillar Species

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