What’s going on?

If you live in Florida and have been anywhere near oak trees this spring, you may have encountered numerous hairy caterpillars. These insects are larvae of tussock moths, which are native to North America and particularly abundant in North Central Florida.

In Florida, there are three species of this insect: the fir tussock moth, the white-marked tussock moth, and the definite tussock moth. Of the three, the fir tussock moth is the most common in Florida, with the white-marked tussock moth following as a close second. The definite tussock moth is very rare. These colorful and hairy caterpillars hatch from eggs in late February or early March, and by early April they mature and disperse cocoons.  

Typically dispersed on homes, park benches, and other outside articles, the cocoons are hard to remove and contain hairs from the caterpillars that can irritate the skin and cause an itchy, burning sensation.  

Why it matters.

Because the tussock moth has a high tolerance for warmer temperatures, the species could become more abundant as a result of a warmer climate, according to a report in the Journal of Integrated Pest Management. The eggs hatch as the weather gets warmer, and with warmer winters expected to occur across the state, this could result in tussock moths appearing earlier in the year. While they do not generally cause significant defoliation or harm to trees, outbreaks of the white-marked tussok moth have severely defoliated, or removed leaves from trees over large areas in the northern United States and Canada.  

What you can do.

Though this species is more of a natural nuisance than an environmental challenge to be solved, there are several ways for homeowners to manage them if they are causing trouble: 

  • Walk around your house with a broom and sweep the caterpillars into a pail of soapy water. 
  • Wearing a long-sleeved shirt, remove cocoons by slipping tweezers between the cocoon and the wall.  

Information from UF Entomology Department, UF/IFAS Integrated Pest Management, the Ocala StarBanner, and the Journal of Integrated Pest Management. Image from iNaturalist user alisonnorthup (CC-BY).