Michigan has over 2,000 different species of moths and butterflies. By knowing the kinds of caterpillars you are most likely to encounter, you can stay away from harmful ones and adequately protect your garden. Pointing out species of caterpillar to your children can be a great way to teach them about nature.

Naturally sad
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Forest tent caterpillars are common in northern Michigan.

Butterfly Caterpillars

Pipevine Swallowtail Caterpillar on Vine
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The pipevine swallowtail caterpillar has orange dots.

Butterfly and moth larvae are both called caterpillars and look very similar, but they are not identical. The best way of telling them apart is by looking at their prolegs. Prolegs are soft, unjoined legs they have in addition to their standard six joined ones.

All butterfly caterpillars are covered with fine hairs and have 5 pairs of prolegs. Some found in Michigan are:

The Pipevine Swallowtail - Spiky and rusty-brown with parallel rows of bright orange dots.

The Question Mark - Red and black, with coral-like spikes all over it.

The Atlantis Fritillary - Black and gold with black coral-like spikes.

The Buckeye - Black on top with blue specks and orange underneath.

Moth Caterpillars

White-marked Tussock Moth caterpillar
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The white-marked Tussock moth caterpillar has a needle-shaped body.

Moth caterpillars have five or fewer pairs of prolegs or hair, but never both. Some found in Michigan include: - Gold Moth: Smooth and dull orange with black bumps and dots. - Abbotts Sphinx: Long, green, and brown with very fine hairs. - Wild Cherry Sphinx: Light green with a thin black and white stripe running diagonally through each body segment. - White-Marked Tussock Moth: A short and thin needle-shaped body with long white hair and white humps on the upper part of its back and long black antennae.

Poisonous

Tiger Moth Caterpillar
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The tiger moth caterpillar has gold "fur."

There are around nine stinging caterpillars in the US, at least three of which can be found in Michigan. They are: - Eastern Buckmoth: Very spiky and black with rows of yellow/gold flower-looking spots. - Tiger Moth: Small with black and gold "fur" and long white hairs like spikes. - Io Moth: Young Io larvae are bright yellow, older ones light green, both have coal-shaped spikes. All species are typically found around late summer/early fall on deciduous trees. A sting can feel like a stinging or itching sensation and can best be guarded against by wearing gardening gloves and teaching children to avoid prickly or fuzzy caterpillars. If contacted, wash the area with soap and water, use Scotch tape to remove any remaining spines, and apply baking soda paste, ammonia, or calamine lotion.

Destructive

Gypsy moth caterpillar
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Gypsy moth caterpillars are notorious tree-eaters.

The two biggest caterpillar pests in Michigan may be the forest tent caterpillar and the gypsy moth. An especially big problem in northern Michigan, forest tents are long and green with an intricate black gold and white pattern on each segment of their back. Adults deposit thousands of egg masses on trees, which quickly consume all edible tissue on the tree upon hatching before moving on to the next thing. Gypsy moth caterpillars are well-known deforesters. They have pairs of red and blue spots across their backs and have long dark hairs from May to early June