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Thursday, October 22, 2020

Explained: The furry puss caterpillars, murder hornets terrorising US cities

Climate change has a significant role to play in the sudden appearance and subsequent rise in population of several different insects over the last decade.

By: Explained Desk | Margao | Updated: October 21, 2020 11:15:13 am
The furry puss caterpillar, named after the far less vicious house cat, is essentially a southern flannel moth in its larva stage. (Reuters)

Months after the Asian giant hornet — a vicious predatory insect popularly dubbed the ‘murder hornet’ — was first spotted in the US state of Washington, health officials in Virginia are now warning residents to watch out for another dangerous critter — the highly venomous furry puss caterpillar.

This week, the Virginia Department of Forestry sounded an alarm after it received multiple reports of the hairy-looking insect in the eastern part of the state. Several Virginia residents have said that were stung by the dangerous critter in recent days, which is unusual since this type of caterpillar is usually found in southern US states like Texas and Missouri.

Meanwhile, the state of Washington has been grappling with its own bug infestation. Ever since the first murder hornet was spotted in the state late last year, these insects have destroyed entire beehives and decapitated tens of thousands of bees, threatening crops that rely on pollination. These ferocious creatures have also been known to kill about 50 people in Japan every year, mostly as a result of allergic reactions.

Officials at the Washington State Department of Agriculture are now making desperate efforts to track down their nests and kill them before they enter their destructive ‘slaughter phase’.

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But what are these insects and what has led to their sudden resurgence in the United States?

The furry puss caterpillar, named after the far less vicious house cat, is essentially a southern flannel moth in its larva stage. According to experts, after metamorphosis, the insect no longer poses a threat.

Closely resembling a wig or toupée, the caterpillar is widely regarded as one of the most poisonous of its kind in the United States. Touching or accidentally brushing against the hairy coat of these insects could cause a painful reaction and trigger symptoms such as fever, muscle cramps or swollen glands.

The bristly hair that coats it, hides small and toxic spines that can get lodged in a person’s skin and cause immediate and intensely burning pain. The severity of the sting depends on its location as well as how many spines get embedded in the skin. The caterpillar can also sometimes leave its victim with an itchy rash that appears in a red grid-like pattern.

A Virginia resident who was stung by the caterpillar last month, told The Daily Progress that it felt like being stabbed with a scorching-hot knife. The slug-like insects are known to fall from trees and get lodged in clothes, leading to multiple painful stings.

The caterpillars, which subsist solely on oak and elm leaves, are commonly found in parks and near structures in southern states like Texas and Missouri. In a recent Facebook post, the Virginia Department of Forests urged residents to maintain “social distance” from the caterpillar after several were sighted in the eastern part of the state for the first time.

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What is the ‘murder hornet’ and what is the threat it poses to agriculture?

In November last year, two unusual hornets were spotted near Blaine, Washington. After studying the insects closely, scientists identified them as the Asian giant hornets, the world’s largest wasps, which are known to grow up to nearly two inches in length.

While nobody has been able to figure out how the hornets first arrived on US soil, some speculate that they may have accidentally been brought in by container ships docking at one of Washington’s ports.

Native to East Asia and Japan, these predators are infamous for ruthlessly ripping apart honeybees and decimating their hives. However, they also pose a threat to human beings. Their potent stingers deliver venom that has killed hundreds of people across the world. According to National Geographic, 42 people in a single Chinese province were killed in 2013 following a surge in the population of the murder hornet.

Researchers and foresters fear the impact of these insects on the country’s agriculture that is dependent on honey bee pollination. Pollination is a very significant part of the agricultural process and a vast number of crops are dependent on honeybees, which serve as primary pollinators.

European honey bees, commonly found in North America, are no match for the Asian giant hornet. A small group of hornets can destroy an entire colony of bees in less than 90 minutes with their shark-fin shaped mandibles, experts say.

The Washington State Department of Agriculture has been working overtime to try and locate the insects and destroy their nests before they enter their “slaughter phase”, where they kill bees by decapitating them.

After the discovery of the first hornet in Washington, a web page was set up the state’s agricultural department to report any additional sightings. So far, officials have received several hundred reports, Reuters reported.

At least six hornets have been sighted or trapped near the city of Blaine over the last two weeks. Washington State Officials were able to successfully capture a live hornet for the first time only on September 30. However, when they attempted to glue a tracker to the insect, so that it could lead them to its nest, they ended up gumming up its wings, The Guardian reported.

What has led to a rise in the population of both insects in the United States?

According to experts, climate change has a significant role to play in the sudden appearance and subsequent rise in population of several different insects over the last decade.

“With changes in our climate, we’re seeing some insects change their population,” Theresa Dellinger, a diagnostician at the Insect Identification Lab at Virginia Tech, told CNN. “But it’s too soon to tell. Caterpillars, moths and butterflies all have cyclical periods, it’s all about the right time, and the right conditions.”

Scientists believe that the population of the furry puss caterpillar will be kept in check by its natural predators. But they will be forced to intervene if the numbers surge suddenly and dramatically.

Meanwhile, in the case of the ‘murder hornets’, many believe that they spread across the western parts of Washington due to the expansive wooded landscapes and mild, wet climate that the state offers.

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