Caterpillars can kill you
It’s that time of year again, and I don’t mean Valentine’s Day. I mean the time when Spain’s most dangerous creatures appear.
I’m talking about the Pine Processionary caterpillars that make nests in the pine trees of Spain. Don’t underestimate them, they are deadly. Keep your pets away from them, and don’t try to destroy them yourself.
If you are holidaying in Spain at this time of year, BEWARE.
An excerpt from ‘Two Old Fools ~ Ole’ which explains how Joe and I became aware of these creatures.
The shrine stood in the centre of a clearing at the top of the mountain. It was freshly painted and flowerbeds had been planted all around. Several benches stood beneath waving pine trees and glorious views stretched out over the mountains in all directions. I happened to look down at the ground a few feet in front of us.
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing.
Joe stood up and walked over, crouching down to examine the curious spectacle I’d spotted.
“Oh my gracious aunt!” said Joe. “What on earth…”
Writhing along the ground was a long, brown sinuous worm-like thing. Except it wasn’t a worm, or even a snake. It was a six-feet long line of caterpillars, marching nose to tail.
We were enchanted. Each caterpillar was brown with yellow stripes and soft downy hairs. Each caterpillar followed the one in front, never deviating from the line, never getting left behind. We stayed awhile, fascinated, watching the determined little procession.
“I wonder what type of caterpillar they are?” said Joe. “And I wonder where they’re heading?”
The answer to these questions was to come as a bit of a shock…
We took some photos, headed back down the hill, pausing briefly to chat with Geronimo’s donkey, then went home. I switched on the lap-top and described our caterpillar encounter on Twitter. And what a response I got!
‘@VictoriaTwead They’re KILLERS! Don’t go near them!’
‘@VictoriaTwead Hate them, hate them, hate them!’
‘@VictoriaTwead What is the point of those evil things?’
‘@VictoriaTwead Those caterpillars are DEADLY, avoid at all costs!’
I was a little taken aback… Killers? Deadly? How could those cute little fluffy caterpillars be anything but charming? My Internet research took me to the Grazalema Guide which has an excellent article on these sinister little creatures.
I read the article. The caterpillars we had encountered were Pine Processionary caterpillars, destined to hatch into unremarkable moths. The female moth lays her tiny eggs in a pine tree. The eggs hatch and the caterpillars grow quickly, feeding voraciously on pine needles at night. To protect and house their community, they spin a white fluffy bundle in the tree and in February or March the entire colony abandons the tree in a long line searching for soft soil to bury themselves and pupate. This procession was what we’d observed on our walk.
So why the horror? Well, if disturbed, the caterpillar sheds its hairs. The hairs cause painful rashes, or much worse. If inhaled, the tiny hairs can be lethal. An inquisitive dog unfortunate enough to inhale them needs to be rushed to the vet within 40 minutes. Children and adults can also suffer severe reactions, including anaphylactic shock. Even walking under trees housing the bundles can be dangerous as the hairs are often airborne.
Clearly these critters are not to be messed with. I read with horror and huge sympathy the comments people had left on the forum:
“My Yorkshire has just come in contact with the Caterpillars and it’s not looking good as her tongue is inflamed and she is passing blood. We had her in the vet and they said the next 48 hours will decide if she is to survive.”
“My five month old labrador puppy has lost nearly half his tongue which dropped off and is now suffering the effects of all the drugs he has taken. He has devloped two large lumps on his side. He is ok but don’t under estimate the effect of theese caterpilars.”
“Thank you for this info. I live in the Algarve Portugal and work at a local vet. Unfortunatly we have to treat many dogs and occasionally cats that have been affected by the caterpillar. Their tongues go neucrotic and sometimes the end may drop off. We have to wait a few days to check that the animal can still eat and drink with the remaining part of the tongue.”
The last comment on the website made me smile simply because it seemed to me that this particular guy had had a very lucky escape.
“I came across thousands (and I’m not exaggerating) of these in Menorca last week. Walking up the sand, on the handrails, on the wooden walk-way and squashed underfoot in their thousands. There were the nests in the nearby pine trees as you described and, looking at the photos above they appear to be the same. However if they are the same then I’ve been remarkably lucky. I spent ages picking them up and arranging them to get a good photo. I also was curious to know what they did when you moved them from their chosen trail etc.”
As if these horror stories weren’t enough, the pine trees themselves are devastated by these furry fiends, and often die. The next time we hiked up the mountain, I examined the area much more carefully. The caterpillars had gone, but sure enough, we could see the white bundles dangling from the trees, just as the article described. And amongst the clump of pine trees stood dead ones, already stripped by the caterpillars. We resolved to warn the villagers and keep the Ufarte twins away from the area.
11th February 2013 @ 3:11 pm
Wow how frightening!
11th February 2013 @ 3:16 pm
Yep, who’d have thought? Nasty little critters, aren’t they. But I guess they must have been created for a reason… I wonder what eats them?
11th February 2013 @ 3:21 pm
There are lots of “critters” that I question their creation…….
11th February 2013 @ 3:26 pm
I know what you mean, Carrie. Like mosquitoes, and maggots in raspberries. 🙂
5th March 2013 @ 1:05 am
Heartbroken , no other words can make me describe how I feel, my lovely little westie Tallulah wouldn’t eat or drink last night, very lethargic, no frothing mouth, body shivering, and eyes tightly shut made me think she seems as if she has a cold, vet is closed, me thinks she will go to the vet first thing in the morning, as she is very quiet now and resting. 9am vet confirmed – caterpillar poisioning, we had to prize her mouth open it, the tongue is black and dead, thats how I felt inside dead, Tallulah has had all the injections and now it’s a waiting game to see if she will survive, I am wracked with guilt, we live in a villa with a very large garden, but not one pine tree on the property, plenty of soil, Tallulah and Mr Bojangles (our rescue westie) are walked daily on the sea front, never near pines, never been to the campo, always mindful of those blasted ghostly looking nests, how could this happen to us, our vet says it’s because of the high winds we have had they have blown from pines quite a distance away. As I write this its 2am I shall not sleep tonight but have a faithful watch over our little westie who even if she survives will have half of her tongue cut out, I have no idea how she will be able to eat or drink the morning will tell us more, she is curled up in her bed I shall gently lift her like I did with our babies and take her to our bed as this may be our last night with her. Trisha from Moraira.
5th March 2013 @ 8:54 am
Oh Trisha, I am so, so, so sorry… I don’t know what to say. That is absolutely heartbreaking. Please let us know what happens, and I know anybody who reads this will be equally upset for you. 🙁
5th March 2013 @ 5:52 pm
5th March 2013 @ 5:55 pm
Not yet. Waiting to hear. 🙁
5th March 2013 @ 6:48 pm
7th March 2013 @ 10:52 pm
Update on Tallulah, Thank you so much for you concern, I must admit it’s been like tom tom drums in Moraira, Benissa and Javea, all our doggy friends getting in touch. Well Tallulah has daily been recovering, I couldn’t get her to drink or eat, all the vets say the same the mouth will be so sore she will be unable to eat for a few days ,and then will start to drink, I took no chances as on the hour I used a syringe to push a few drops into the side of the mouth, I knew I needed to keep her hydrated,also I put manuka honey on my finger and gently pushed this through a gap in the back of the mouth I think the wonderful healing powers of pure honey will only do good for her, eventually she started sipping water, We gave her some wafer thin chicken roll and that was the start to her recovery, well not complete, every day 9am she visits the vet administers injections of antibiotics, antihistimines, cortisones, and strong painkillers, today the tongue is starting to drop out as it is dead, I thought the vet cuts the dead tongue out but this can do more harm with infection, it’s dreadful having to watch this, she is really struggling to eat eventually the tongue will end up like a snake, the vet has assured us she should be able to cope, how this pretty little westie survived those crutial first few hours shows what a mighty little fighter she is. Another twist by Tuesday morning although we had been thoroughly cleaning our hands I started with lumps on my face, my husband Phil was covered in the neck area with them, they are itchy, hot, with a red rash surrounding, did the usual calomine lotion, steriod creams etc., as one spot dried another two would replace, we were so busy with Tallulah (everytime I gave her honey I would have to wash her mouth as it would be stuck around the fur) we also have Mr.Bojangles to watch out for. This morning the lumps and spots had travelled around my neck, under both armpits across my chest also same on torso and legs I look like a child with measles.Off we went to the doctors, we both ended up with two cortisone injections into bottom, a course of antibiotics, and strong 180mg antihistimines the doc said no amount of cream would cure it. Although we had been handling Tallulah doctor thinks the hairs from the caterpillers could of been on the ground and we may of been sweeping them up and breathing them in without knowing. I believe they now have the caterpillers in the oak trees in England just shows how dangerous these are, I think people need to be more aware of them, not just pet owners but families with young children. I shall sign off now Tallulah and Mr.Bojangles are sleeping well, I look like a zombie but no matter as were not out of the woods yet but maybe near the clearing. After the weekend we will see how she copes. I shall send an update, Regards and big thank you from Trisha, Tallulah and Mr.Bojangles.
8th March 2013 @ 8:40 am
Trisha – thank you so much for coming back and updating. Poor Tallulah, and poor you! What a terrible time you are going through, all of you. There are loads of nice people on Facebook who are following this story and wishing you well, so I’ll tell them to come and read this. Thank goodness there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel for you! Looking forward to hearing the next instalment, and hoping it’s all good news.
8th March 2013 @ 9:44 am
We are all thinking of you. Paws crossed your Westie gets better soon. It’s terrible to watch your dog suffering because you have no way of telling them what’s going on. I remember hearing about the insects years ago. Maybe your experience will help others to remember there is alot to look out for when walking our pets.
8th March 2013 @ 9:43 am
An horrendous story for Tallulah and you all, I hope she continues to recover well. We had a similar thing with our husky, like you no pines around, he came in with swollen face, and tongue and was struggling to breath. Rushed him to the vets, vet confirmed caterpillars. Luckily for us we got him to a vet within 20 mins, I believe this is the crucial time limit, he had all the injections and made a full recovery with no ill effects. Sending healing thoughts to little Tallulah.
8th March 2013 @ 5:00 pm
Am praying for you all, and that Tallulah makes a good recovery, (you too of course, and is able to manage without her tongue. It is such a nightmare, but she is so lucky to have such caring and devoted owners. Not everyone would be able to do what you are doing, and I applaud you. May she keep improving, God bless.
8th March 2013 @ 6:47 pm
Jane Roberts couldn’t have put my thoughts down any better God Bless
7th January 2014 @ 5:29 pm
BEWARE 2014 WINDFALL CATERPILLARS
We have four large pine trees on the edge of the concreted yard/parking area of our Finca. Apart from being a pain in the butt all year round because of falling pine needles and seeds, and cones which crash onto our carport roof sounding more like boulders, we have annual problems with the vicious processionary caterpillars nesting there.
This season we saw our first caterpillar on the 26th December! When we first moved here I was told that they are not supposed to become a pest until March/April but for the past two seasons they have been active in our trees from the middle of February. But December ?????
We found one or two per day for the following 4 days, but only a couple of odd ones since. Whilst they are not yet appearing in procession to migrate to their next resting place, they are non-the-less fully grown, and it only takes one to kill a dog! Our dogs live outside, but when the caterpillars become a threat we have to keep them sleep at night (or even if my husband and I both go out during the day). Our Lab and Mastin are not impressed by this early confinement but were they to come into contact with one in the middle of the night, the dog could be dead by the time we wake next day.
I just want other dog owners to realise that the dangers, in our area at least, have started early this year, so BEWARE of EARLY WINDFALL CATERPILLARS.
13th February 2014 @ 3:43 pm
Yes they are evil.
We have 9 pine trees and 3 dogs on our finca. This winter is the worst yet, over 40 nests starting in NOVEMBER (we are in Alicante). I use a backpack spray gun, it can reach about 4 metres up when set to a single jet rather than a wide spray. I spray as soon as I see a nest, using imidacloprid from the local agricultural supplier (I normally use this to try and protect palm trees). Usually the nests die in a few days. I have had a couple of nests this year that have survived the spray, and have cut off the branch and burnt the evil things in a portable BBQ. Obviously I wear protection, gloves and goggles. So far so good, I also use a sticky paint on the trunk of the trees, (used in the UK for fruit trees) but so far no caterpillars have been caught that way.
Vigilance is the key, the nests grow fast.
Hope this helps
14th February 2014 @ 1:09 am
Hi Richard, Thank you so much for your article on the caterpillars, last year my little Westie Tallulah managed to survive these vile things, imagine anyone dying from your tongue swelling so large it chokes you to death, and the mouth being burnt alive, she couldn’t possibly know what was happening to her only terrific pain,, the vet said she only survived with quick action from us, I also ran Manuka Honey around her lips on the hour to try and heal her mouth, even though I wore plastic gloves both me and hubby ended up having to get injections from our local doctor because we had touched her mouth, we were covered in real itchy weals from our neck, full torso down to top of the legs. Back to Tallulah it took the vet a full week of injections and drips to get her on the recovery road, she now has only half her tongue, (looks like a little snake) she has special dinner and drinking bowls to help her eat. We lived in the Moraira area at the time and no pines in our area, local vet said strong winds had blown spores across, we have moved to Javea and these nests although not in our garden are close by,my husband has been placing heavy duty sacks over the small ones he can reach and cutting through the branch, I shall show him your article and hopefully this will help him. We have stopped walking the dogs where we live, just letting them run in the garden and taking them in the car to the beach front, On Saturday Tallulah and Mr Bojangles will put their cossies on for a walk on Benidorm prom, If anyone sees them stop us and we will show you what those dreadful things did to Tallulah, Kindest Regards to you and everyone who wrote to me during a very difficult time.
10th March 2014 @ 6:53 pm
Hi Trish its Mary from Tap dancing, i didnt know that happened to your dog, we had to rush our cat Ben to the vet yesterday as the same thing happened to him, he is a lot better today, hopefully he wont have any ill effects, but we are keeping a close eye on him. missed you at tap dancing on Wednesday
1st March 2014 @ 7:29 am
My wife took our puppy to school with the kids last Monday in Almoradi. When she came home she complained of a sore throat. When I picked up the kids later I noticed two caterpillars where she had parked. Luckily the dog is fine but my wife had terrible swelling in her throat and in the end went to the doctors who has said it was caterpillar hair! She has had to have three injections in her bottom to stop the poison. We have pine trees and have them sprayed in January so we think it must be the ones near school. Beware
4th March 2014 @ 11:51 pm
I have just returned from our villa at Balaia Golf village near Albufeira, I have been itching like mad, thinking I had been bitten by ants, although only seen a few.
I seen a line of these caterpillars outside along the the footpath against the corner of the wall, not really knowing anything about these things, I continued to watch, a chap from along the road came along and said these caterpillars were deadly and had killed several dogs nearby.
I then went indoors got the dum dum spray and fired it all over the line that was about 2m long, then swept them away onto the grass.
Not giving a thought for them any longer and went about my business, it was very gradually that I started to itch and come out in red bumps all over my ankles behind my knees on my upper arms chest and behind my ears and neck. This has been some 3 days ago and it’s still itching, despite taking antihistimine.
Please be very careful, it’s painful.
5th March 2014 @ 7:20 pm
For Peter and anyone who has a dog, this year I have done my homework with local vets so please get these tablets in you do not need a prescription just pop into your local pharmancy, they cost around 13 euro a pack of 30, these tablets are what the vet puts into your dog but by injection, thing is by time you get to the vets especially if its night you could be loosing valuable time, I would then seek out guidance from your vet. Please anyone with dogs get them in before the stable door is locked and bolted. For a dog you require 16mg for every 10kilo, The tablet is called Urbason from local pharmacy, Peter perhaps you can try one of these tabs ask your chemist and give them your weight inform them you have been in contact with the caterpillars maybe its worth a try, The problem last year was Phil and myself started like yourself but left untreated it gets worse, we also used antihistamine and calomine lotion as one goes down two more appear, we had to visit a private doctor who injected both myself and hubby, then put us on a course of antihistamine at 170mg which is extremely high, although it cleared the lumps we were not very well on the high dosage at the time Tallulah was poorly we were more concerned about her and put up with our illness, can you image how a dog must suffer. Peter try and get it treated. Kind Regards Trisha Barr
13th March 2014 @ 1:10 am
Lovely to hear from you, but not under these bad circumstances, so sorry for you, its a terrible worry, I hope your cat is going to be okay, I have become neurotic about these caterpillars, its got so bad people I know have said they passed me by as I haven’t acknowledged them, no wonder when I walk around with my head down eyes glued to the floor looking as if I’ve lost half a crown (shows my age) I’m thinking of applying to police force when they need a sweep of anywhere that’s how good I am, whilst in the house I’m often found scanning the pine forest with my binoculars, I’ve had to tell the neighbours I’m rehearsing for a new advert for Aunt Bessie’s otherwise they will just think I’m plain nosy, and god forbid if one of the dogs ventures out into the garden alone, you should hear me screaming., British Rail have decided to stop using a tannoy system as they want to employ me, I examine all the dry washing from the whirly gig, guests have to leave shoes at the door, just in case one of those little blighters come into our home. Tallulah and Mr. Bojangles have the cleanest teeth I’m forever brushing them and examining their mouths,. poor dogs. Anyway Mary hope your cat pulls through, you are the first person I have known with a cat that has suffered its one of the things I wondered about, because I knew someone who gave her cat an inhaler every day as it was allergic to pollen!,
I’ve kept the tap dancing up and really enjoying it. will see you soon. X Trisha Barr ,
13th March 2014 @ 9:52 pm
Hi Trisha Ben is ok thank goodness, we took him back to the vet on Monday and he gave us some more tablets to give him, but said if we noticed anything strange about his mouth then take him back, i had a rash too because i picked him up and looked in his mouth, not as bad as yours though just needed to take antihistimine, i understand about being neurotic about the caterpillars i am heading that way. Glad you are enjoying the tap dancing, where do you go?
23rd March 2014 @ 2:32 pm
We have just returned from our Villa in Menorca. We too had trails of caterpillars emerging from the trees. My Husband did not go near them. I, on the other hand stamped on them to kill them.
He has been covered in itchy spots, like mosquito bites but really it is too early in the season for them. One day they were on his front, next on his legs, then arms etc etc. We tried everything to get stop him itching, washing the bedding all his clothes every day, spraying the furniture in case of fleas, but I have not suffered any ill effects. I am worried that his ‘bites’ are infact caused by the capterpillars, he seems to be getting better now we are home, but the postings here have worried me. Do you think he is ok or should he see the doctor? Frankly I don’t think the doctor will know what to do anyway!
I have just read in the local Menorca paper that the council has taken to shootting the nests with a 12 bore gun. I am not sure if that will work or make matters worse, if the hairs can be spread by wind!!
Any advice or thoughts would be welcome
10th October 2015 @ 3:48 am
We have a BUNCH of these catipillar web bests in our trees. I thought they were spider webs at first but when j looked closer I saw multiple little catipillars wiggling around in them. I was blown away! These nests are a nice size and have killed some of our trees. Along with another type of caterpillar that makes cocoons out of evergreens and dangle from the branches. They destroyed one of our evergreens. It was certainly a sight to see! I doubt the webs here are this poisonous kind since I’m in NC but is still fascinating.
12th October 2015 @ 10:51 am
Amazing! They are all over the world, it seems. :/
9th February 2016 @ 9:25 pm
I’m sorry, deeply sorry for those pets who have suffered. People too. Me also. Our little Yorkie was in contact last Thursday night and reacted immediately with swollen black tongue and bloody drool. We are now Tuesday and she has been in and out of the vet. She will lose part of her tongue and is still having trouble with eating and drinking, so we give her a syringe full of water every so often. She is much brighter and livelier but crashes out after exertion. I have these pine trees in my garden and this year the caterpillars were down from the tree months earlier than usual. Normally I would see the first processions in Beginning of March but this year it was end Jan. I didn’t even think to look. By all accounts, it’s a plague all over Europe. (I’m in Portugal). I have never seen so many blogs and web sites devoted to this problem, so clearly the problem is increasing exponentially. We are still not sure if our Yorkie will survive. Certainly, she will lose part of her tongue to necrosis and may have problems drinking, although the vet believes she will find her own way eventually. I’m covered in itching bumps which have no relation to being in direct contact, although I do shovel them up and drown them. I always have and successfully deinfested my huge pine for years but there was about a five year gap when family problems led me to lose sight of the problem.
The life cycle of this insect is worth studying. The procession will descend the pine tree and eventually find soft soil into which the whole nest-colony will burrow and pupate until the Autumn, by which time, predators such as hoopoos will find and eat them. Those which survive then begin the mating process as moths and the females will return to the tree from whence they came (providing that the tree is still there and alive), so then the whole cycle starts again. She will lay around 300 eggs possibly many times and those are new colonies which start the nest building process. Normally the nests will be built on the South side of the tree for heat which the sun provides. When ready, the caterpillars will emerge and start their descent in procession down the tree in the spring weather time. Normally it’s early morning on a warm and sunny day, to give them time to get underground before nightfall. This is, so far, what I’ve gleaned from reading many, many sites and blogs (don’t bother with Wikipedia – their information is very minimal). Read up all you can anywhere else to protects your family and pets.
I believe that on a windy day, the hairs are in the air and we’ve probably put down our irritations to mossies, etc. but I have been here 15 yrs now and, for sure, this problem is far worse then than it’s ever been. I too am paranoid about it. But there are folks now paying more attention, and if we expose this to everyone we can, we will find some way of going towards eradicating this problem more easily. One idea has been posted frequently, and that sounds successful, is painting the bark of the tree (a good band width deep) with mechanical axle grease. I will go for that one myself next season (around beg. December – to be on the safe side for an early descent). The coloured, double-sided adhesive bands you can put around the tree, I have found to be useless as the caterpillars merely find a suitable groove in the bark to go underneath. Spraying the nests with bleach (neat) is another method being looked at, but you have to get into the tree for that – not good (without a Hazmat suit (!), I would imagine).
My reason for such a lengthy blog is that a) I have first-hand experience now of the unimaginable suffering that effected animals go through on account of this seemingly innocuous creature and b) the more this is publicised, the more likely it is that we can be aware as individuals to protect our pets and our children and, indeed, ourselves and in the hope that we can motivate county councils, cameras, etc. to take this seriously and do something about it.
Thank you for reading & God Bless.
12th February 2016 @ 7:23 am
So sorry to hear about your little Yorkie, Chris, and thanks for the very informative comment. 🙂
12th February 2016 @ 11:26 pm
I saw a line of these in Spain yesterday.I had walked along a path in a small park and didn’t see anything but returning 10minutes later I spotted a line across the path,about eight feet wide,and moving.I thought it was a snake until I got closer.I could then see it was hundres of caterpillars nose to tail.Hence googling it and finding this site.Thank goodness I ddn’t touch
28th May 2016 @ 1:17 am
Beware! They really are very dangerous little creatures. 🙁