Kansas is home to a variety of caterpillars. These larvae of butterflies and moths have voracious appetites and can be considered a pest if they enjoy munching on cash crops or have the ability to devastate native plants. Whether they are pests or not, caterpillars are a wide and varied group of insects found throughout the state.
Kansas caterpillars come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. The spiny oak-slug caterpillar has a unique look. It is green with darker markings along its back. Sticking out from its sides are feather-like extensions. The caterpillar grows to be ¾-inches long. Yellownecked caterpillars have a very different appearance. They are black, thin and have a yellow-orange neck. Eastern tent caterpillars are also black with yellow stripes running down their backs, while fall webworms have unique white hairlike extensions covering their whole body.
Caterpillars are seen in Kansa at different times of the year. Eastern tent caterpillars are some of the earliest to be seen. Sightings begin around early March. Yellownecked caterpillars appear a little later in the year, starting in July, when they become present on the undersides of host plants. Fall webworms are seen throughout the year. Between the two species in Kansas, there are four generations of caterpillars every year. As their name suggests, they are most prominent in the fall.
Each type of caterpillar in Kansas has preferred host plants. Yellownecked caterpillars feed on azalea, beech, birch, chestnut, elm, maple, oak, peach and sumac trees, as well as other species of fruit and shade trees. Spine oak-slug caterpillars enjoy oak, willow and other deciduous trees. Eastern tent caterpillars are found feeding on a variety of native, ornamental and orchard trees. Fall webworms feed on deciduous trees, particularly elm and mulberry.
Some species of caterpillars are considered pests. Eastern tent worms, for example, can cause major damage to trees since they feed in large groups. If enough leaves are devoured, the caterpillars can damage or even kill trees. This is rare, however, and like fall webworms, they are mainly considered a pest because they affect the appearance of trees and can be a nuisance to humans. The spiny oak-slug caterpillar poses more of a danger. The spines on this caterpillar secrete a poison that causes itching and swelling. Some people with allergies may require a trip to the hospital.
- Great Plains Nature Center; Insects; Jim Mason
- University of Minnesota Department of Entomology; Yellownecked Caterpillar
- University of Miami Poison Control Center; Spiny Oak-Slug Caterpillar
- University of Kansas Home and Horticultural Pests; Web-Producing Caterpillars in Kansas; Robert J. Bauernfein; June 2005
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