Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Why You Should Wear Gloves While Gardening

Photo from this site.

Meet the Automeris illustris, the most recent resident discovered in the garden of the Casa Rosa. This impressive caterpillar was hidden in an overgrown vine that Rico and I were trying to remove from the Pitanga tree in the front of the yard. We were up on the first floor veranda, level with the top of the vine-strangled branches, yanking out handfulls of unwanted foliage. Suddenly, Rico pulled back his hand and cursed, thinking a splinter had entered his finger. He inspected his hand, found nothing, and went back for another handful of vine. He buried his hand in the tangle of green leaves, then immediately jumped away, screaming in pain. "That thing stung me," he managed to say.

I looked down and saw the most horrific, shiver-inducing caterpillar I've ever laid eyes on in my life. It was nearly 3 inches long and covered in neon green fern-like spines. "Wash your hand with soap," I shouted to Rico, who was already in the bathroom and still screaming in pain. I ran to the kitchen and tore open a box of milk, then filled a plastic cup for Rico to submerge the affected are in. The milk helped somewhat, but he still had serious nettling in his fingers. We called Rico's uncle, who is a doctor, and he gave us the magic solution: urine. Rico peed on his hand, and the burning finally stopped. His hand was red and a bit swollen, with white spots where the poison had contacted his skin.

To be safe, we decided to put the caterpillar in a jar so that we could take it to the clinic if Rico symptoms worsened. There were several cases of fatal caterpillar stings in Santa Catarina state some time back, and we didn't want to take any chances. Rico broke off a branch to nudge the caterpillar into the jar, and we were equal parts fascinated and creeped out when the beast clung to the branch and started emitting shock-like static noises. We put the caterpillar in the jar, plant material and all, and sat observing it, completely transfixed, for several minutes, trying to ignore our crawling skin.

For good measure, we took photos (prior to putting the thing in the jar).

Nature's way of saying "Don't Touch"

For a bit of perspective, Rico's shoe is a size 40 (Brazil), 8.5 (US).

Of course, I spent 40 minutes trying to identify the caterpillar on the internet. I find it nearly impossible to stop thinking about un-named things I encouter - snakes, trees, rocks, etc. - and was going crazy with no Google access for most of the day (no signal up in Santa on the iPhone). Now we are at my brother-in-law's house, and I've finally satisfied my curiosity, and provided a great show-and-tell for the fam.

Thankfully Rico is okay, and has suddenly become - que surpresa - an avid promoter of gardening gloves, no matter how harmless the situation may seem.


Meg said...

That is incredible. So not only is urine good for jelly fish stings (a la Friends), but for other types as well. I've been doing a lot of gardening lately, though I'm more likely to encounter a Black Widow.

Dena said...

Ali, that thing is beastly! I'm fascinated. Let me know what else you find out about it.

Dena said...

I just saw the link under the photo. Duh.

Ali la Loca said...

~Meg - Apparently ammonia is the trick to stopping both types of stings/burns. It worked like a charm, stopping the pain instantly. Enjoy your gardening - I wish I could do more of it in Maputo, but at least I can dream of the garden here while we are in apartment-land.

~Dena - Check out the new link. It's in Portuguese, but has some wicked photos.

nola said...

Wow. Isn't nature amazing! Sorry for Rico's pain, but man that's beautiful!

We have nasty stinging caterpillars here ... just more evidence that New Orleans really is part of Africa. :)

Linda said...

I had a bad experience with some catepilars here in France-the ones who make webby nests in the trees. I had a rash on my arms and neck for weeks-had to take cortison, the whole nine yards. Gardening can be dangerous to your health.

Ali la Loca said...

~Nola - Actually this was in Rio, not Moz, but still I agree that NOLA has the clear tropical-Africa connection.

~Linda - I know the ones you are talking about. They used to be all over the trees in the parking lot where I lived in Austin. Gross!

Stacie said...

Yikes!!!! That thing is big...but actually very fascinating about the shock noise....glad he is ok!

--jenna said...

i got stung by a relative of your caterpillar when i was in ilha grande. nasty beast. totally forgot about the urine treatment at the time...but it left a red welt that itched and burned for days afterwards...

ouch, Rico!!!

laundrygirl said...

Ok I'm creeped out now.
Glad he's ok.