So, you have woolly bear caterpillars in your yard and you need to get rid of them.
Do they freak you out? Or you just can’t stand caterpillars?
Or do you have so many woolly worms that they’re destroying your plants?
Whatever the case, you’re about to learn how to control, manage, and eradicate them naturally.
In this article, we’ll cover:
- Why you have woolly bear caterpillars in your yard
- What they’re attracted to
- How to identify them
- How to get rid of them with natural DIY home remedies (that actually work)
- Ways to stop woolly bears from eating your plants
- And more
By the end of this guide, you should have a solid foundation of knowledge to get rid fo these fuzzy hairy caterpillars.
And if you have any questions, just post a comment and ask.
Sound good? Let’s get these ugly, fuzzy caterpillars out of your yard!
What’s a woolly bear caterpillar?
Woolly bear caterpillars (woolly worms or woolly bears) are known for their ability to predict the conditions of winter.
That’s what makes them famous. They’re supposedly able to predict the harshness of the winter by the band colors, lengths, and positions.
They’re a fuzzy, hairy, black, and orange caterpillars that eventually turns into an adult moth (isabella moth).
Although they have a striking appearance that screams danger, they’re not poisonous and can’t inject any venom.
They’re also relatively safe for your plants, but some people can’t stand some crawling caterpillars on their edibles. It freaks them out and they’ll do anything to get rid of them or keep them out of the garden.
There are even woolly bear festivals around the world, where people who are fans of these caterpillars gather around to tribute these bugs.
So they’re not all bad.
But for those who can’t stand caterpillars or worms in their yard, or just want to protect their plants, you can get rid of them using home remedies.
These caterpillars have a variety of different aliases due to their popularity.
Some of the most common names for them are:
- Tiger moth
- Isabella tiger moth
- Black hairy caterpillar
- Banded woolly bear
- Woolly caterpillar
- Banded caterpillar
- Woolly worm
- Woolly bear
- Wooly bear caterpillar (misspelling)
- Pyrrharctia isabella
- Fuzzy hairy caterpillars
- Orange and black caterpillars
Woolly bear caterpillars have the signature black, fuzzy hair all over their bodies.
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They’re spiny and bristly and are covered completely in the anterior and posterior regions.
The hair color varies from solid black to gray to brown, depending on the area of their body and the available sunlight.
When you come across one of these caterpillars outdoors, you may see them as a brownish or orangish color. This is due to the sunlight’s UV interaction with their spines.
They move just like any other caterpillar and can climb plants, walls, and fences.
The spines all over their body are not poisonous and don’t have venom. They’re also not urticant and are harmless to most people.
However, sensitive people may react negatively when touching one. This is why handling should be avoided without proper protective equipment due to their sharp spines. Some individuals have reported dermatitis.
These caterpillars will roll up like a possum and stay still until the threat has vanished. If you disturb them, they’ll remain motionless curled up into a ball.
After some time, they’ll be in “flight” mode and crawl away quickly.
The adult tiger moth is a sight to behold.
Adult woolly bears are scaly with small heads and bright orange forelegs. They may also have black spots on their wings.
Woolly bear caterpillar life cycle
The life cycle of a woolly worm is no different than any other caterpillars. The adult moth finds a plant to lay eggs on.
The eggs are deposited in clusters on the leaves and hatch shortly. The time to hatch depends on the climate.
Warmer climates allow faster hatching and development. Colder climates take much longer and may force the woolly bear to overwinter.
The entire caterpillar to the pupation process takes about a year with warmer climates.
After it’s born, it eats the green leaves off the host plant. It’ll stay as a caterpillar for a few years as it continues to feed. Then it’ll find a place to pupate. The caterpillar pupates twice each year- once in the spring and summer.
After pupating, it’ll emerge as an adult moth which usually happens around June. The moth then mates and repeated the cycle.
The cocoon is spun and often found hanging off single branches and stems. It’s nothing remarkable and easy to spot.
If you see one, you should remove it so it doesn’t allow an adult moth to emerge which just furthers the infestation. Cocoons are obvious and can be seen from a distance.
Woolly bear caterpillar diet
Woolly worm caterpillars eat a variety of plant matter. They refer to colorful, bright plants but will also eat just plain grass.
Some of their favorite plants to eat are dandelion, burdock, goldenrod, plantain, nettle, leaves, flowers, apples, tannins, veggies, fruits, etc. They’re not picky and don’t need a water source because they get it from their plant diet.
They generally choose a plant to continually feed off of before spinning a cocoon and pupating.
This is called their “host plant.” These bugs choose a plant and will consume it until they’re ready to pupate.
What does it turn into?
A woolly bear caterpillar turns into an adult moth. As you probably know, only the caterpillar counts as the larvae of a moth.
After they spin a cocoon and pupate, they turn into an adult moth. These are two distinct parts of their life cycle but are the same pest.
But a lot of people don’t even recognize or know this.
Caterpillars turn into moths. They’re just the larva form of them.
Is it OK to touch a woolly bear caterpillar?
Woollybear caterpillars may look poisonous, but they’re one of the rarities. Most caterpillars with sharp, colorful bristles are venomous to the touch.
The spikes and spines that cover poisonous caterpillars are harmful and used for predators and threats.
However, the woolly bear caterpillar’s bristles are not poisonous to humans, even though they have bristly, pokey spines that are alarming to see.
They’re safe to touch, but you should avoid doing so if you’re not experienced with caterpillars.
You may end up grabbing the wrong one and picking up a venomous one that you mistook for a woolly caterpillar.
And you should always wear protective gear when handling bugs.
Where do woolly bear caterpillars live?
Woolly bears come from all over the world. They can thrive in colder climates even in the arctic.
They’re found in Greenland, Canada, and around the arctic circle. They’re also found throughout the US and Mexico. Other than these select countries, they’re not found anywhere else.
Woollyworms hideout in host plants that they were spawned on. The adult moths deposit eggs all over the leaves of select plants.
Then the black fuzzy caterpillars hatch and start feeding as larvae. They’ll usually stick to a single plant until they pupate into an adult moth.
There are many different plants they eat- everything from burdock, violets, lambs quarters, spinach, cabbage, asters, herbs, curly docks, dandelions, and even clovers.
They’ll give clover mites a run for their money.
Do woolly bear caterpillars hibernate?
Woolly bear caterpillars overwinter during the cold months, so they’re not killed by the chill.
They have a cool process they use to “hibernate” and put themselves into a form of frozen hibernation.
The caterpillar larvae come out of the egg and will overwinter when it detects freezing temperatures.
The entire body freezes solid and protects itself by making a cryoprotectant in the body, which thaws during the spring when temperatures pick up again.
This is why they’re found in the coldest parts of the world, such as the Arctic.
Are woolly bear caterpillars destructive?
Woolly bear caterpillars are something to be concerned about.
They munch of a variety of plants and will destroy the leaves over time, especially when there are a lot of them.
However if you just have a few woolly worms here and there, it’s rarely something that’ll destroy your plants entirely. They also feed late into the season, so they’re not prone to crop damage.
They do have a voracious appetite and will eat nearly everything. So it depends on how serious your pest infestation is.
Plants that have become established in their place should do just fine with minor caterpillar problems.
But newly sprouted, younger plant seedlings are vulnerable and woolly bears can destroy them entirely.
How does a woolly worm predict winter?
Woolly worms have a myth about them that they can predict the coming winter. The long, dark bands show which part of the winter will be the coldest.
Although there’s no scientific evidence showing that they can actually predict the conditions of winter, the folklore exists and people believe in it.
This is probably why woolly bears are such a fascinating species and people look to raise them as pets.
How do I get rid of woolly bear caterpillars on my plants naturally?
For those gardeners suffering from woolly bear infestations, there are some DIY home remedies you can use to get rid of them organically without dangerous chemicals.
These caterpillars are largely safe for plants are rarely will do enough damage to kill your foliage.
But if you’re not a fan of woolly worms, there are some ways you can get rid of them fast.
Here are some home remedies to get rid of hairy caterpillars. Try a few of them out and see what works for your caterpillar infestation.
There are multiple different recipes for caterpillar pesticides and killers you can make at home for cheap. See what works for you.
There’s no single best way to get rid of them- you’ll have to use a combination of different caterpillar pest control techniques to be efficient.
What will kill caterpillars?
Many different things kill caterpillars. If you need to eliminate those fuzzy buggers, use the various homemade remedies outlined in this guide.
You can use a combination of diatomaceous earth, caterpillar traps, oil sprays, boric acid, and even attract birds.
They aren’t hard to kill, but when you have a server caterpillar infestation, that’s when things get interesting.
You’ll have to adjust your plan of action to eliminate them accordingly.
Again, use a combo of different remedies and see what works for you.
Make an oil spray
Oil can be used to exterminate hairy caterpillars because they don’t take well to the slick viscosity of normal cooking oil.
Just mix 2 tablespoons of canola oil and 1 teaspoon of dish detergent. Then pour this slippery solution into 2 cups of water (preferably hot).
This will blend everything for a nice caterpillar pesticide you can make at home. To use it, just spray on them directly. It should make pests drop off your host plants right away.
Some plants are sensitive to oil, such as squash, orchids, and plants with fuzzy (hairy) foliage.
Do your research before spraying so you don’t hurt your plants.
Add a bug barrier
A bug barrier (or insect barrier) is a type of hard fabric that people use to cover up their plants entirely.
Although crawling pests can snake under the fabric, flying ones are usually deterred because they can’t crawl under the fabric (since they’re not smart enough).
As you know, fuzzy caterpillars come from flying adult moths that deposit eggs on your plants. If you can kill the moths, you won’t have a caterpillar problem.
They rarely go searching for other host plants and will remain on the plant that they hatched on.
So if you can shield the plant from moths depositing eggs, you can prevent all sorts of caterpillars from being spawned. The same goes for any other flying pest- butterflies, birds, beetles, etc.
You can buy bug barriers at most hardware stores. They may also be called row covers or plant protectors.
Be sure you don’t use them on veggies or fruits that require excessive pollination.
This will disturb the process of fertilization and you may not get a crop yield you were looking for.
Use diatomaceous earth
You can use diatomaceous earth around the base of the plant’s stem to keep caterpillars off of it.
Just sprinkle a ring of the fine powder around the base or the perimeter of your plants.
Diatomaceous earth is a natural powder that will destroy the caterpillar by dehydrating it. If it crawls over it, then the caterpillar will get dozens of microscopic cuts that will leak precious fluids. This will kill the pest slowly.
The best part about DE is that it’s completely natural and you can use it around your veggies and other edibles.
Buy food grade, pure diatomaceous earth. Then sprinkle it around your plants that you find woolly caterpillars munching on.
There are multiple ways to get creative with this powder:
- Sprinkle it into the soil around the plant
- Sprinkle it around your yard’s perimeter
- Or sprinkle “plots” of DE around each plant to compartmentalize them
Read all labels before use.
And be sure to avoid the POOL GRADE diatomaceous earth. That one has dangerous compounds.
You’ll want to double-check this as they’re both almost identical in appearance.
DE is safe for plants, people, and pets. But you should avoid having any creature come into contact with it because they can disturb your application.
DE is effective until blown away by wind or rained upon so you’ll need to reapply as necessary. Sunlight may also reduce efficacy.
DIY pepper spray
Pepper can be used to kill and repel hairy caterpillars.
The scent of hot pepper deters caterpillars of all types so you can use it to keep them off your plants.
Pepper is easy to make- all you need are some spicy peppers, garlic, onion, and water.
You can alternate peppers and try different varieties to see what’s most effective for your caterpillar infestation.
Some peppers may not work for you, so don’t rely on just this recipe. There are a lot of different recipes out there so you can play around and see what works for your specific situation.
Regardless, here’s a quick sample recipe you can use:
What you’ll need:
- A few cloves of garlic
- Fresh habanero peppers
- A few jalapenos
- 2 cups of water
- A tablespoonful of vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon dish soap
- Whole onion
- Any other pepper you want to add (powdered or whole)
- Small spray bottle
- Protective equipment (goggles, gloves, etc.)
- Paring knife
How to make it:
- Put on your protective gear first. Spice can harm the eyes and skin.
- Use a fine chopping knife and prepare the veggies.
- Dice the garlic, onion, jalapeno, and habanero and any other peppers you want to add.
- Sprinkle any powdered pepper if applicable.
- Add all of the peppers to the 2 cups of water.
- Add the vegetable oil and dish soap to the solution.
- Blend until liquidated.
- Pour into a spray bottle.
How to use it:
- Spray directly onto caterpillars you come across. The burning spice will kill them almost right away.
- Be sure to avoid spraying on sensitive plants. Do your research to see which plants are safe to spray.
- Test it on a small portion of the plant first and assess damage after 48 hours.
- If it’s safe, apply to the entire plant. If not, reduce pepper concentration or add more water.
- Caterpillars that drop off the host plant can be placed into a bucket of soapy water.
- Repeat daily for best results to clear out a caterpillar problem quickly.
- Try other pepper types, herbs, or spices if it doesn’t work at first.
- Keep pets and people away from the mixture and applicated areas.
Birds are a natural predator of caterpillars and will gobble them up like no tomorrow
They’re also very easy to attract because all you need is the right type of birdseed and voila, you have birds. If you live in a state with woolly bears present, you probably already have the bird species you need to attract.
They’re excellent hunters that prey on all sorts of caterpillars naturally, so you should make your yard attractive to them to maximize this natural defense.
Here are some things you can do to attract more birds to your garden:
- Put up bird feeders with the right seed type
- Add birdhouses for them to nest and perch
- Add a birdbath or source of water
- Keep cats away
Most bird species like robins, vireos, wrens, warblers, cuckoos, orioles, jays, chickadees, and nuthatches eat caterpillars.
You’re sure to have at least SOME bird species native to your area that’ll gobble them up.
Find out the exact type of seed they’re attracted to and make it available to them.
Birds will then learn that your garden is a source of delicious fuzzy caterpillars and return to the scene for additional feedings. Perfect.
Or try chickens
Chickens are the ultimate pest control machine.
When they forage your yard, they’ll pick up anything and everything from aphids to cockroaches. Caterpillars are just another food item on their menu and they’ll be glad to eat up your fuzzy caterpillars for you.
Of course, not all cities allow the raising of backyard chickens, so you’ll want to do some research first.
But if your city allows it, then, by all means, buy a pair of chickens and let them roam your yard (after you chicken-proof it). They’ll forage and feast a day to keep the bug population controlled.
And they’ll produce some eggs for you to eat while you watch.
Use Bacillus thuringiensis
Bacillus thuringiensis is a microbe bacteria that are commonly used to control pest infestations.
It’s a naturally occurring bacterium that’s found in soils and is safe for veggies, fruits, and most plants. It also doesn’t affect beneficial insects like bees, birds, and animals.
Bt is also safe for pets and people when used correctly. But for those fuzzy black caterpillars? Bt is lethal. It also kills a variety of other annoying garden pests like oriental roaches, potato beetles and plaster bagworms.
You can stock up on Bt from specialty stores and local nurseries. Use as directed.
You can make your own woolly bear trap at home using molasses.
The sticky substance will deter any caterpillars that happen to crawl through it and keep them off your plants.
Here’s how to make it at home:
What you’ll need:
- 2 tablespoons molasses
- 1 tablespoon dish soap
- 1 liter of water
How to make it:
- Pour the molasses into the water
- Pour the dish soap into the mixture
- Stir gently
How to use it:
- Use the brush and run the bristles into the sticky mixture
- Paint the dirt around your plants that you’re trying to protect
- You can also pour some directly around the perimeter of the plant
- The molasses helps deter caterpillars from coming onto the plant
- Reapply as necessary
- Mulch into the soil if needed
- You can also paint parts of the plant, such as the stem, to keep caterpillars off
- Use organic molasses to keep your edibles organic (with natural dish soap)
Use a burlap trap
Burlap can be a useful and quick solution to stop woolly caterpillars from climbing up your trees.
If you notice them crawling up and running amok eating the leaves, you can use burlap to stop them from getting up to the foliage and eating it.
All you need is to wrap the entire trunk in burlap. The burlap allows them to hide under it because they hate the sun.
So it doesn’t necessarily STOP them from crawling up the trunk, but rather provides caterpillars a place to hide. When enough of the gather under it, get a bucket of soapy water ready.
Remove the burlap and you should see a bunch of caterpillars hiding under there, depending on your specific infestation severity.
Use a pair of gardening gloves and pick them off. And then toss them right into the bucket to eradicate them right away.
Note that you’ll find multiple caterpillars species hiding under the burlap trap and some may be poisonous.
So you need to use the proper protective equipment if you plan to handle them AND you have the knowledge to identify which are dangerous and which aren’t (and now how to handle them).
If you have the slightest doubt, hire a professional to take care of the problem.
Plant herbs that deter and repel caterpillars
There are some herbs you can plant to help keep woolly bears off your host plants.
Think of smelly, aromatic herbs like cilantro, aster, yarrow, dill, fennel, basil, and more.
These herbs emit a strong odor that repels caterpillars and other pests. If you plant them strategically around the OTHER plants you’re trying to save from caterpillars, then they’ll stay away from both.
It’s called companion planting.
You place the herbs around the perimeter of your host plants, or in between each row.
This may also provide the caterpillars with an additional food source that steers them away from your primary plants. This is called decoy planting. Either way works to keep those woolly bears from eating your plants. And it’s completely natural.
You’ll have to try out different herbs and see what works best for you. Many herbs keep bugs away, among plants. If herbs don’t work, then try the popular plants that keep bugs away.
Plants are the ultimate repellent because they blend right in and they don’t require any upkeep other than basic maintenance.
No poisons. No chemicals. And they keep bugs off. what more could you demand?
You can read more about companion planting, or check out this video for a quick demo of how it’s done:
Using plants to protect other plants? Awesome.
Does dish soap kill caterpillars?
Dish soap is the easiest and most effective way to get rid of woolly bears.
You can just add 1-2 tablespoons of dish soap to a quart of water and gently stir. Then pour the mixture into a spray bottle and spray it directly onto the caterpillars. This will kill them if the concentration is right.
Afterward, remove them so other bugs aren’t attracted to the dead bugs (ants, roaches, etc.)
Remove them manually
Alternatively, you can also remove them using a pair of protective garden gloves.
Simply pick them off your plants and drop them into a bucket of soapy water. This will kill them right away.
If you’re squeamish or afraid to touch the woolly bears, you can use a handheld shop vac to suck them off your plants.
Of course, this may not kill them since they’re a large pest (they may even clog the vacuum’s intake piece).
So you’ll want to dump them out of the canister or vacuum bag after you’re done. Leaving them there allows them to escape and find a new host plant to chew on or attract other pests that eat up the dead caterpillars.
Use commercial pesticides
When DIY home remedies don’t work, you can resort to using commercial grade pesticides to kill the caterpillars.
I always advise you to avoid doing this because it leaves behind dangerous compounds that can be harmful to you, your pets, people, and the environment. If you grow edibles in your yard, you should seek alternative natural pesticides
But for those who don’t have the time or energy and just want to use a store-bought poison, here’s what to look for.
This is the best pesticide for caterpillars you can get.
Pyrethrin is derived from chrysanthemum and is considered to be natural. Though you need to read the label to find out since brands are always adding additives to their poisons.
Pyrethrins will kill caterpillars among other pests such as cucumber beetles and soldier beetles . Most sprays are safe for humans and pets, but I’d still advise NOT letting other beings near the area you spray.
Pyrethrin can be lethal if used wrongly. You can find it at most hardware stores. Use as directed and read the label.
UV light from the sun will degrade efficacy. So you’ll need to reapply as needed. Put on proper PPE at all times when using.
Here are some references you may find useful on your journey to rid these pests:
Did you get rid of the woolly worms?
By now, you should have everything you need to know to control, manage, and eradicate these hairy, fuzzy caterpillars.
They’re relatively insignificant and don’t cause any major plant damage unless you have a ton of them in your yard.
Serious caterpillar infestations require some substantial work to control but can be done without the need of an exterminator or poisonous chemicals.
If you have any questions about these black fuzzy caterpillars, leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.
Or if you’ve dealt them before, share your advice of wisdom with other readers below!
Please let me know if you have any feedback for this guide. If you found it useful, let me know.
Consider telling a fellow neighbor who may also find some benefit out of it.
Thanks for reading.
Currently an active researcher in the pest control industry for the past 8 years- with a focus on using natural and organic methods to eliminate pest problems.
I share handy DIY pest techniques I come across here to help out others (and possibly save them from a mental breakdown).
Fight nature with nature.