You might think that the most dangerous insect you have to deal with them you live in Spain is the mosquito or his friend the domestic fly. But Spanish residents should also be aware of the dangers of another critter that lives in the country, and this one can be deadly to both children and domestic pets. The Pine Processionary Caterpillar is a caterpillar that nests high up in the Mediterranean pine trees during the Spring season and then drops to the ground in order to pupate. It is at this stage where the caterpillars are at their most dangerous, because when they are at ground level children and pets are most likely to come into contact with them. With that in mind, here’s everything you need to know about the danger of pine processionary caterpillars and how to avoid them:
How to Identify a Pine Processionary Caterpillar
The first thing you need to know about the pine processionary caterpillar is how to spot one! These creatures are relatively small, measuring between 3-4cm in length, and they tend to live in wooded areas. They are typically an orangey brown shade, and are covered in thousands of small bristles: it is these fine hairs covering their body that are poisonous.
The thing that will make these caterpillars most easy to identify, though, is the clue that we get from their name: they are processionary, meaning that they join together in a procession (which looks a little like a caterpillar ‘congo line’). The length of this chain can vary, but it is not unheard of in the most extreme cases to see hundreds of caterpillars travelling together.
Where Do Pine Processionary Caterpillars Live
Europe has been plagued by pine processionary caterpillars in recent years. Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium have all seen influxes of plague-like scale, whilst the UK is also home to these irritating creepy crawlies. In much of Europe, including the UK, pine processionary caterpillars are typically found in oak trees, but in Spain they choose to make pine trees their homes. As pine trees are such a frequent sight in Spain, you can imagine that these caterpillars can be a real problem in the country.
Why are Pine Processionary Caterpillars So Dangerous?
It is impossible to underestimate the horrifying impact that these caterpillars can have on both children and animals (particularly domestic pets such as cats and dogs). There are often stories in the press of dogs who are put to sleep, or who have to undertake extensive surgery as a result of standing on or swallowing pine processionary caterpillars. Although not as fatal, children can also experience allergic reactions or respiratory problems as a result of coming into contact with the caterpillars. Individuals with asthma are particularly vulnerable and at risk of having a severe attack, so need to be especially careful when walking in Spanish woodland.
These caterpillars are so dangerous because the hairs or bristles that cover their bodies contain an urticating protein called Thaumetopoein. This is a poison that can case severe skin irritation, and lead to a rash in humans, whilst because animals are more likely to eat the caterpillars, or lick any wounds or sores that they receive, the damage can be much more devastating to them.
What Should You Do to Avoid Pine Processionary Caterpillars?
The best way to avoid the devastating damage caused by pine processionary caterpillars is to avoid walking your dogs/pets in Spanish woodland during the spring season, when the caterpillars are most likely to be laying on the ground. It is between December and April that the larvae will begin to make their way to the ground, and therefore at this stage that children and animals are most vulnerable.
If you do find a pine processionary caterpillar nest when you’re out walking, or in a pine tree that you might have on your property, it is very important that you don’t touch it. Instead, you should contact either the local authorities or, if they are unable to help, a local pest removal specialist, in order to have it removed safely. Even if the nest appears empty, it is still not safe for you to touch, as the caterpillars may have left some of their bristles or hairs behind: it’s just not worth taking the risk! Be sure to tell your neighbours what you have found, particularly those with pets or small children, so that you can play your part in keeping your whole community safe.
Protecting Your Pets
If your pet does come into contact with a pine processionary caterpillar, you should wash their mouth out with warm water immediately, and take them to the vets as soon as possible: any delays could cost lives. Wear gloves if possible, to protect your own hands from the caterpillar bristles. You may notice that your pet has white spots on their tongue and around their mouth, and this will quickly lead to drooling, distress, tongue swelling and even suffocation. A fast-acting cortisone injection, which your pet can only receive from the vet, is the only thing that can reduce this swelling and ultimately lead to their long term survival.
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