A couple of days ago a reader asked us one simple question: “Are wooly worms ok to hold?” “Wooly worms” is one of the names of wooly bear caterpillars, and in fact basically any worm or caterpillar that has “wooly” in their name is generally a wooly bear caterpillar. The reader’s question is slightly ambiguous because it isn’t clear from what perspective (the human’s or the caterpillar’s) the question is being asked, but we are assuming that the reader is curious if it safe to hold wooly bear caterpillars, which is of course related to whether wooly bear caterpillars are harmful or dangerous in anyway. So, we will address all of these questions as we proceed.
Although some people use “wooly bear caterpillars” to refer to several different types of fuzzy tiger moth caterpillars, the term is most commonly used as colloquial name for Isabella Tiger Moth caterpillars (Pyrrharctia isabella) in particular. These caterpillars are quite common in the fall, and they are one of the few caterpillars that many people are able to identify without any sort of guidebook because of the distinctive orange stripe that wraps around their black bodies. (The fact that they look like little balls of fur is quite distinctive too.) They are also popular because of the folklore that surrounds them. According to legend, the width of orange stripe indicates the severity of the winter to come. A narrow band betokens a harsh winter, and a wide band signals that a milder season will come.
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Although we haven’t handled these creatures ourselves, and thus can’t report anything from personal experience, the general consensus seems to be that they are not safe to touch, as we have reported in the past. They won’t bite you or anything, but their “fuzzy” hairs are actually quite stiff, and when handled these hairs can break off a caterpillar’s body and get stuck in your skin, causing irritation. This reaction can actually be somewhat severe, as reported in one encounter with a wooly bear caterpillar. (The story is fairly amusing, although the author is not as amusing as he probably imagines himself to be.) However, we say that the “general consensus” is that these caterpillars aren’t safe to touch, and not simply that they are unequivocally not safe to touch, for two reasons. First, plenty of people report that they have no problem handling wooly bear caterpillars, so evidently they can be safely handled by some people (presumably people whose skin isn’t as sensitive to the pointy hairs). Second, at least one credible source, the Extension Program of Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, states that “woolly bears are safe to touch.” Overall, then, it seems wise to avoid holding wooly bear caterpillars, but handling them won’t necessarily cause any problems.
So, to bring this back to our reader’s specific question: it might be ok to hold wooly bear caterpillars, but just to be safe the reader shouldn’t do this with her bare hand. If it must be held – like to move it out of harm’s way, for instance – it is advisable to use something like a stick or leaf. Whether the caterpillars thinks it is ok to be held is another question, and the fact that it has prickly hairs that can cause skin irritation simply by being touched is a pretty clear sign that it would prefer to be left alone.
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