On a recent hike near Carson Pass in Alpine County, I encountered this critter crawling vigorously across a dry swale in the subalpine dwarf-shrub steppe at 8,900 feet.
It was about the size of my little finger and was about to disappear under an Eriogonum, so I coaxed it onto a stick and moved it to a large rock, where I took pictures while it resumed its ascent toward Red Lake Peak. The spines all over its body made it look about as fun to handle as a cholla cactus or porcupine, so I used the stick to prevent any direct contact.
That was a good thing, because on doing an image search in Google and checking further on Butterflies and Moths of North America and Bug Guide, I narrowed it down to Hemileuca hera, the Hera buck moth or Sagebrush sheep moth. The larvae of Buck moths and the related Io moths (both Saturniids) are well known for the extremely painful, persistent, burning, swelling stings produced when the spines inject their toxin into your skin.
An article on the University of Florida’s Featured Creatures site advises that “Not handling caterpillars that have spines is one of the best ways to avoid receiving stings.” Obvious, but sensible advice. Should you, however, inadvertently come into contact with one of these beautiful creatures, the wound should be treated by “washing the site immediately in order to remove any loose spines that might be present. The site should be allowed to dry without the use of a towel. Any remaining spines should then be removed with an adhesive such as duct tape. Finally you can apply ice packs to the site to relieve some of the pain.”
Hemileuca hera has been seen in the Mono Basin and it ranges across much of the Intermountain region, so it is likely to be present in the Bodie Hills. The larvae feed on sagebrush. The adults have striking white and black patterns on their wings.
Copyright © Tim Messick 2015. All rights reserved.