Ctenucha virginica caterpillar
Last year I had a picture of an adult Ctenucha virginica, a striking black-and-orange tiger moth with an unpronounceable name. Well, this spring (on May 10), I found the caterpillar of the same species, climbing up a grass stem.
As seems to be typical for tiger moths, they overwinter as nearly-mature, very hairy caterpillars, eat a bit in the spring, and then pupate to emerge as adult moths early in the summer. So, when I found this one, it was probably on its way for its early spring eating binge – tiger moth caterpillars frequently eat grass. Aside from the characteristic pattern of yellow and black tufts of hair, they also have orange prolegs, so I’m pretty sure this one is identified properly.
Their main defense against being eaten is those hairs: they are pretty stiff, and I imagine that eating something covered with those is pretty unpleasant. I certainly don’t plan to eat one. It seems to work, because caterpillars like this are always crawling around, and never seem to get molested by anything.
If they are disturbed at all, they immediately curl up in to a ball, with the hairs all pointing out. That made it really difficult to get good pictures, because every time I tried to shift it for a better viewing angle, it immediately rolled up, and stayed rolled for about ten minutes. So, I got an awful lot of pictures of it like this:
Overall, these are harmless (unless you either rub the hairs into your skin, or try to eat them, in which case I understand the hairs are pretty irritating). They also aren’t a crop pest to speak of, because they aren’t that prolific, and in any case they eat grass. GRASS! Grass is everywhere! Who’s going to miss a bit of grass? Nobody, that’s who! They might be a problem if they built up to plague numbers like gypsy moths or forest tent caterpillars, but since they don’t, they are generally considered to be just another one of those innocuous caterpillars that one sees around from time to time.