As a kiddo, I loved climbing trees. It was a challenge, a getaway. I felt a sense of freedom to imagine I could do anything.
These days, I don’t see many children in trees. I hope it hasn’t become a lost activity for today’s kids. Yes, I know there are the usual dangers of falling, breaking limbs, etc. But as a youngster, I learned, the hard way, of another somewhat hidden danger while climbing trees.
I’ll never forget it — the nonstop pain and burning I experienced while climbing down a tree. I ran inside and my parents had no idea what was wrong, until I held out my arm. There was the perfect imprint of a Puss moth caterpillar (Megalopyge opercularis), otherwise known as an asp.
These become a flannel moth as an adult. I never saw it, and at that time I had never heard of an asp. I started to pass out and they rushed me to a doctor’s office. I don’t remember much else except the painful lump that formed under my arm. It took a few days before I felt like getting up and doing anything.
Let me share a bit of information about the asp. The Bugs In the News website reported there are 44 species of asps. In the larval caterpillar stage, they are covered with soft hairs, which hide spines full of venom.
Most of these caterpillars are from less than an inch to 1½ inches long. Even though they are small and look very soft, they should never be touched. They can be found near homes, schools, parks and hiking trails in shrubs like the yaupon as well as shade trees — their favorites being the oak, pecan, elm and hackberry.
They attach on the trunks and branches so you need a careful eye watching at all times, whether climbing, hiking or even just pruning. They can appear anytime between spring and fall.
Besides the tell-tale shape of the asp sting, symptoms can range from pain and minor redness and swelling at the site to nausea, headaches, affected lymph nodes, shock and even respiratory distress.
My one bit of advice to my parents and grandparents — be aware they’re there, and show your own kiddos how and what to look for. Hopefully it will save them from my painful experience.
Trees are so much fun to climb, and I would never discourage or scare kids to the point that they’d never consider climbing another tree. But a little proactive information will sure be helpful to tree-climbers and gardeners alike.
Darla Horner Menking is a Texas Master Gardener and Master Naturalist. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org