The Pain And Glory Of Being A Nature Nerd

Back in October, I experienced a bit of a surprise as I was weeding our rock-wall shelves. Perhaps more surprising to some may be my reaction to what happened – a true indication of just what a nature nerd I am.

Bending under an acacia bush and tugging at weeds, I felt a sharp sting and instant numbness on and beneath my shoulder. I won’t lie – I freaked out, slapping at my back, running toward my husband screaming, “Is there something on me? Is there?” (My fear was that I’d been bitten by a black widow, since they are here in abundance).

He saw nothing, but the numbness intensified, and by the time I got into the house, this is what I saw:

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Photo credit: Melissa Crytzer Fry

Hubby: “Um, should we take you to the hospital? That doesn’t look good.”

Me (much calmer, now … I mean, my airways weren’t closing, so I figured I would live): “I think there are caterpillars that spit venom. Let me see if I can find the culprit.” Armed with my camera, I discovered this:

nature nerd
Indeed, the offender was a caterpillar – incredibly camouflaged. (Where I got the “spitting caterpillar” theory, I’m not sure). Moving beneath the tree, I must have brushed against the caterpillar repeatedly, completely unaware. Photo credit: Melissa Crytzer Fry

The next logical step – in my mind – was to Google what kind of caterpillar I was looking at to assess its threat. My best guess: a hemileuca juno buckmoth caterpillar, which I learned is covered with venom-tipped, dart-like hairs that are shed in defense. For safe measure (after seeing the word venom!), I consulted the Arizona Venom/Poison Center. Of course, I offered to email photos – of myself and the culprit.

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Photo credit: Melissa Crytzer Fry

I was told to use tape to remove any caterpillar hairs, wash with soap and water, then add some cortisone cream.  See the incredible detail of those spines!

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Photo credit: Melissa Crytzer Fry

Shortly after my first conversation with the poison/venom center, I received a call back indicating that the photos were fabulous – could they use them for publication? And, yes, they thought my ID of the stinging caterpillar was accurate.

So this is where my nerd-dom makes itself abundantly clear: I was SO excited. “Yes!” I nearly shouted into the phone. “Use my photos.” And if that weren’t enough, I received another call a few minutes later from an M.D.-researcher at the University of Arizona who said, “We never get photos like this. I would love to submit these for publication in the New England Journal of Medicine.”

My excitement now (forget the pain on my arm) was off-the-charts! The M.D. told me that their entomologist was also working on an official ID of the caterpillar. Cue sirens of joy! An entomologist? Woo hoo! (I later learned that the entomologist had never seen one of these caterpillars. So I obliged him with more photos):

MCF nature nerd 5
It turns out, my ID was on target. The caterpillar is a Hemileuca tricolor (same genus as Juno), sporting venomous urticating spines.  Photo credit: Melissa Crytzer Fry


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These caterpillars were everywhere this year, including one on the screen, which caught Macho’s attention. I slammed that window down quite quickly so that he could avoid the sting.  Photo credit: Melissa Crytzer Fry

The greatest irony of this tale? This stinging sucker becomes a gorgeous moth with grapefruit-colored underwings – one I have admired for years, and have nicknamed a “Muppet” because of its furry gray toupee and all-around cuteness:

MCF nature nerd 7
These moths appear right now — when the weather gets cold — and each year I take them into my hands during the winter months, in the mornings, to warm them back up and set them into the air. Ironically, touching them at this stage of their development is like touching silk.  Photo credit: Melissa Crytzer Fry

Lesson learned: sometimes the things we love and admire in nature can hurt us.  And sometimes it’s worth it.


(Original version of this piece published at WHAT I SAW on November 3o, 2014 by Melissa Crytzer Fry.  Reposted here with permission of the author. ) 




    1. I’m still waiting to hear whether they’ve been accepted for publication. Would be fun if they are.


    1. You’re too kind. The pain dissipated fairly quickly, but the rash flared up again a week later. Strange!


    1. Thanks, Elaine. I’ve been sure to warn all of my local friend to steer clear (I can’t help but think of children who think caterpillars are so fascinating and want to TOUCH them). Not this one!


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