Saddleback Caterpillar, Acharia stimulea. Image Credit Matthew Orwat
In Florida, there are a dizzying array of caterpillars that turn into beautiful or interesting moths or butterflies. Most are harmless except to the plants they munch on. There are a few that will cause humans pain if they are handled or touched. One of these venomous caterpillars is called the Saddleback, which is native throughout the eastern United States and is found throughout Florida home gardens. Many caterpillars only feed on specific and limited species of plants. The Saddleback caterpillar, Acharia stimulea, can be found anywhere in the home garden because it eats a wide variety of plants.
This caterpillar is quite a bit shorter than other Lepidoptera and has brown ends covered with venomous spines. The central portion of the body is bright green with a brown dot in the center. The spines on the front and back of the caterpillar are hollow and can break off and embed in the skin when disturbed. They contain hemolytic and vesicating venom, which cause burning sensations on and reddening of the skin; later sweating and blistering. Spines should be removed promptly before any other treatment methods are applied.
The best strategy for managing this insect is prevention of sting. If working in the yard in dense growth where these might not be easily observed, wear gloves and long sleeves. They are not aggressive and very slow moving, so they are easily avoided. Since they are seldom present in large numbers, the preferred method of control is removal from plants with forceps. Registered insecticides, such as those containing Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis), are effective controls of this insect.
Below is a partial list of host plants, most of which are commonly found in Northwest Florida gardens (EENY 552 excerpt):
Saddleback Caterpillar, Acharia stimulea. Image Credit Matthew Orwat
- Aster spp.; Helianthus spp., sunflower and artichoke
- Cycas revoluta, cycad, sago ‘palm’
- Vaccinium spp., blueberry, cranberry, huckleberry
- Castanea spp., chestnut; Quercus spp., oak
- Carya illinoinensis, pecan
- Lagerstroemia indica, crape myrtle
- Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, Chinese hibiscus; H. syriacus, rose of Sharon; Malvaviscus spp., wax mallow; Tilia spp., basswood
- Eriobotrya japonica, loquat; Malus pumila, common apple; M. sylvestris, crabapple; Photinia spp.; Prunus serotina, black cherry; Pyrus spp., pear; Rosa spp., rose
- Coffea arabica, mountain coffee; Gardenia spp.; Ixora coccinea, jungle geranium
- Citrus aurantium, bitter orange; C. limonia, rangpur; C. paradisi, grapefruit; C. sinensis, sweet orange; Fortunella spp., kumquat
For more information, please consult with publication # EENY 552 “Saddleback Caterpillar Acharia stimulea” or your local extension office.
Some vegetables and herbs like lettuce, carrots, collards, basil, and radish have very small seeds. It is difficult to plant these seeds so there is space between emerging plants for proper development. These plants will often need thinning after they mature. Thinning allows for adequate space for leaf and root development during the growing season. Crowded vegetables will compete with each other for water, nutrients, and sunlight and never produce quality plants. Here are the tips for thinning seedlings:
- When plants are about 1 to 2 inches tall or have two sets of ‘true’ leaves’, it is time to thin out any crowded plants.
- Look up the proper spacing between plants and thin out appropriately. Use the chart in the Florida Vegetable Gardening Guide to determine spacing for specific fruits and vegetables.
- You may pull out seedlings with your hands or forceps to make space or use small scissors to cut off seedlings at the ground level.
Using scissors to cut unwanted seedlings prevents you from dislodging the root system of plants that will be left to mature. Photo by Beth Bolles, Escambia County Extension UF/IFAS
It will initially look like you have lots of room in the garden but realize plants will quickly grow to utilize available space. Some young seedlings like those of radish or lettuce can added to dishes and eaten as sprouts.
Last week, the Okaloosa County Health Department issued a rabies alert after three bats were determined to have the illness. A “drive-through” rabies vaccine clinic was organized for pets, and warnings were issued throughout the region about making contact with wild animals. One radio broadcast played an interview in which a health department staffer urged people “not to attract wildlife to your yard.” While they were focusing on unsecured trash and pet food, I found this advice unsettling, for as an Extension Agent I’ve promoted the practice of attracting wildlife to yards for many years—birds, butterflies, and even (especially) bats. Raccoons, not bats, have the greatest incidence of rabies (based on data collected from 1992-2011), by a factor of almost seven times that of bats. In the scare of a rabies outbreak, it can be easy to overreact or overlook the many benefits that wildlife provide to our neighborhoods.
There are, of course, practical ways to go about living with wildlife without endangering your health or that of your family and pets (including making sure pets have the rabies vaccine).
Use Caution around Injured Wildlife
Most wildlife rescue organizations do not have the staff to pick up injured animals and ask those who find one to bring them in. However, sick or injured animals may respond aggressively as an intuitive protective measure. If you are taking an animal to a wildlife rehabilitator, be sure to approach it gently and use a blanket or large towel to pick up the animal, and place it gently in a box with a ventilated lid. Great information on responding to injured or deserted animals can be found at the Wildlife Sanctuary of Northwest Florida website. Keep in mind that bats are flying animals and spend almost no time on the ground. They do not chase people and are primarily concerned with catching insect prey. If you find a bat on the ground, it is most likely sick. County animal control or private wildlife responders can also help if you are concerned about interacting with a sick animal.
These twin Seminole bat pups were found on the ground with their mother and nursed back to health at the Wildlife Sanctuary of Northwest Florida. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson
Use Care When Retrieving Dead Animals
When bird flu, West Nile or rabies hits an area, health departments sometimes ask that suspect animals be reported for testing to confirm the cause of death. Even if you are just disposing of the animal, be sure to use gloves and place the animal in a sealable plastic bag to prevent spreading germs, and wash your hands after handling it. If burying, place at least three feet deep and away from wells or water sources.
Enjoy Wildlife from a Distance
Disturbing healthy animals while they are feeding or resting can cause unnecessary stress and reduce their hunting success. Animals’ natural behaviors are fascinating to watch, so be sure and do so from a respectful distance to allow them to interact normally with their environment.
Photo Credit: Candy Butler, Floridata.com
Looking to add something to brighten your landscape this autumn? Firespike (Odontonema strictum) is a prolific fall bloomer with red tubular flowers that are very popular with hummingbirds and butterflies. Its glossy dark green leaves make an attractive large plant that will grow quite well in moderate shade to full sunlight. In frost-free areas firespike grows as an evergreen semi-woody shrub, spreading by underground sprouts and enlarging to form a thicket. In zones 8 and 9 it usually dies back to the ground in winter and resprouts in spring, producing strikingly beautiful 9-12 inch panicles of crimson flowers beginning at the end of summer and lasting into the winter each year. Firespike is native to open, semi-forested areas of Central America. It has escaped cultivation and become established in disturbed hammocks throughout peninsular Florida, but hasn’t presented an invasive plant problem. Here in the Panhandle, firespike will remain a tender perennial for most locations. It can be grown on a wide range of moderately fertile, sandy soils and is quite drought tolerant. Firespike may be best utilized in the landscape as a mass planting. Plants can be spaced about 2 feet apart to fill in the area quickly. It is one of only a few flowering plants that give good, red color in a partially shaded site. The lovely flowers make firespike an excellent candidate for the cutting garden and is a “must-have” for southern butterfly and hummingbird gardens. Additional plants can be propagated from firespike by division or cuttings. However, white-tailed deer love firespike too, and will eat the leaves, so be prepared to fence it off from “Bambi” if they are a problem in your neighborhood.
Healthful outdoor exercise, a feeling of accomplishment, and potential saving on the family food bill are good reasons why more and more Floridians are turning to home vegetable gardening.
Image Credit: FAMU
Usually, the most physically challenging part of a vegetable gardening project is to get the soil ready for planting. However, whatever you do, don’t give in to the temptation to cut corners on this phase of the operation. If you do a poor job of preparing the soil, you can expect poor results from your garden, even if you work hard on planting and cultivation. If you’re planning a large garden, you may want to rent a rototiller or even a small tractor and plow, to use in preparing the soil. But, for a small backyard garden, you can do the work with a spade or shovel.