Georgia Critters And Plants That’ll Get You: They Bite, Sting, Or Cause A Crazy Itch

Greg Greer | June 1, 2008

It is a glorious summer’s day. Mom and dad pack the car, including a blanket, a picnic basket with a bucket of chicken and a gallon of sweet tea, and they head off to their favorite spot for a family outing. They soon reach their destination, a beautiful spot on the bank of stream, and they quickly select a sunny place to spread their blanket. What happens next completely ruins the promise of a fun day as the family did not inspect the area prior to spreading their blanket, and they stirred up a yellowjacket nest resulting in the angry little creatures attacking the entire family. Running and screaming, with wasps in hot pursuit, the morning quickly ended in an extremely frightening and painful ordeal. Not the sort of memories they were expecting.

We are extremely fortunate in the southeastern United States in that we have mild winters often followed by a very early spring. Along with the mild temperatures we have an abundance of little creatures as well as a few plants that we must be aware of if we are to enjoy the beauty of the outdoors. This not only includes when in the wild places but also in our own backyards.

This month GON hopes to shed a little light on some of the amazing little creatures we share our region of the planet with. Just knowing a little about these creatures can make it easier to have wonderful outdoor experiences, and some knowledge may even provide some enjoyment in discovering some of the wonders of these wonder- fully adapted biting and stinging critters.

Please keep in mind, these creatures have importance, and while they should not be permitted to take up residence in your home, and you will want to limit their numbers in your back- yard, in the wild places these insects and arachnids have a purpose and should not be destroyed just for the sake of saving “man-kind.” Watch them from a safe distance, but leave them to play out their role in the environment.

The following species of plants, insects and arachnids all have the potential of causing bites, stings or dermatitis on unsuspecting people, and some of these encounters may result in health consequences. I have worked with species like these for 30-plus years, and while I occasionally receive bites or stings, these are typically when I am handling them to maneuver them for photographic purposes. While unpleasant, most of these creatures just cause a little pain and discomfort. But it is very important that everyone be aware that many people have sensitivity to the stings or bites of some of these creatures, and contact between these little animals and those people may result in a life-threatening situation. Due to this, prompt medical attention is important to ensure the best-possible outcome, and persons with known sensitivity should consider talking with their physician and possibly carrying an “Epi-Pen” of injectable epinephrine whenever outdoors.


Scorpions are very primitive arachnids that have been in their current form since Cretaceous times, and many authorities believe scorpions survived the mass extinctions of dinosaurs more than 65 million years ago. To say that scorpions are successful is a drastic understatement, and these extremely well-suited creatures will be around for millennia to come.

Scorpions in Georgia are not overly large, and a 3-inch individual is a large one. The pinchers are used to secure prey as they feed on insects which are captured by either pursuit or ambush, and the pinchers hold the prey while the telson at the end of the long tail injects venom as it stabs the victim. Most scorpion stings occur when bare-foot people step on one, or when a damp dish-towel left on the kitchen counter over night is picked up only to have a scorpion hiding underneath. Female scorpions give birth to live young which ride on the female’s back. The female captures prey to feed her growing young, which may ride on her back for a few weeks. Most scorpion stings are no worse than a bee sting, but persons with sensitivity to the venom may experience a life-threatening situation if a sting occurs.


Spiders, even very small ones, are typically feared by most people. This is most unfortunate as most spiders have no means of delivering a dangerous bite on people, and the numbers of harmful insect pests consumed by spiders annually is incredibly important and economically beneficial. Most people do not consider this benefit, and any spider is dispatched as if it were a deadly creature whose entire existence is just looking for people to bite. This, however, is not the case, but there are a few species that deserve respect, and it is certainly advisable for people to learn to recognize the few species that can be harmful to humans. Only the females of the following species are harmful to people. The males are much smaller, and as the term widow is applied, the females frequently kill and consume the males after mating with them.

Brown Recluse or Violin Spider

The brown recluse is a secretive little brownish spider that can move with incredible speed, and it is very capable of scooting underneath very flat objects. The most noticeable characteristic of this species is the dark violin shape on the cephlathroax, or forward part of the body. This also gives this spider its other common names — violin spider or fiddle-back spider. These spiders are occasionally abundant and in some areas, and bites inflicted on humans are also common. Bites typically occur when a spider is concealed in clothing, and upon pulling up pants or putting on a shirt, the spider is disturbed and a bite occurs. The unfortunate thing about brown recluse envenomation is that bites often result in ulceration deep in the tissue, and the onslaught of necrosis (gangrene) can make treatment difficult. Occasionally, skin grafts may be required for full recovery, and this typically is after a long drawn-out course of treatment. A bite by a brown recluse spider should always be evaluated by a physician.

Black Widow Spider

The black widow is probably one of the most readily known spiders in North America. People from young school age to senior citizens know of the black widow, and although most of the tales of this spider’s bite are highly embellished, the black widow can inflict a bite that has a potential for being severe and possibly life threatening. Any bite by a black widow requires medical evaluation, and a specific antivenin is available to treat the bite of this species.

Black widows favor dark areas and may be found underneath lumber and in old paint cans, garage clutter and tool sheds. They construct a very hap- hazard-looking web, and the female is typically somewhere in the center of the web mass. Due to their behavior of hanging upside down in their webs, the red hour-glass mark, located on the underside of the abdomen, can be seen when viewed in good light and at fairly close range. These spiders do not jump or leap from their webs, so close examination is possible and safe. During the years of outhouses, black widow bites frequently occurred on the part of the body that is exposed while sitting, in other words, your butt. Today that is no longer the likely scenario; however, bites still do occur in a variety of situations and most often in the urban setting.

Brown Widow Spider

The brown widow is a relative of the more commonly known black widow. The brown widow is introduced from tropical America and may be found anywhere in the southeastern United States. Through the 1990s, these little spiders seem to have found their way from Florida to all of the adjacent states, across the Gulf Coast states to Louisiana. There are also reports of brown widows in southern California. This illustrates the ability of small creatures to hitch rides and successfully pioneer into new habitats and environments. The brown widow is not nearly as likely to bite as is the black widow, but the venom is of greater toxicity. Therefore any suspected bites by this species need medical attention. Also of note is the structure of the eggs of brown widow. They are white with numerous spike-like projections. See image. Brown widows like darkened areas and are most likely to be found in water-meter boxes, out-buildings and garages.


Centipedes are venomous creatures capable of injecting venom with their two formidable jaws located in the very front of the animal. They typically are reddish or orange in color, and each body segment has one pair of legs, which extend outward from each segment. The overall appearance suggests a flattened body. The legs of the centipede are easily seen on the sides of the body, unlike the millipedes which often confuse people in their similarities. Millipedes do not bite, and their legs are normally below the body, and there are two pairs of legs per body segment.

Centipedes in Georgia are only mildly venomous, but the bite produces intense pain at the site of the bite. Centipedes are carnivores, predating mainly on insects, but some larger species may take small reptiles, amphibians and anything else they can overpower.


Ticks… just the name illicits disgust to most people. A female tick that has had a nice big blood meal can engorge itself to four or five times its normal size. Most often, people discover they have a tick during their evening shower, and it is quickly removed by varying methods and is disposed of. What normally results is a hardened red spot that may persist for a few days to weeks, and nothing more comes of the tick bite.

However, there are a number of diseases that are transmitted by ticks, thus monitoring one’s health after a tick has been removed can be very important. Any rashes, fevers, headaches, etc. that occur following a tick bite need medical attention as Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease can be debilitating diseases and need treatment to ensure full recovery.

Ticks are extremely successful creatures in terms of survival, but they require blood meals to grow and reproduce. Ticks have eight legs as nymphs and adults, but the larvae only have six legs and thus could be confused with insects. A blood meal is required to successfully go from one stage to another, and there are four stages in a tick’s life — egg, larvae, nymph and adult. Anyone having been in the outdoors only to arrive home to be infested with little “seed” or larvae ticks can testify, it is not a pleasant thing. The best means of removal is to scrub your body with a course wash cloth to ensure removal. Each little bite will produce a small hardened area on the skin. The larger ticks typically show up as singles on people as they sit atop of grass blades or on vegetation along paths, waiting for an animal to which they can cling to and thus hopefully get a good meal of blood to continue to their next stage. The adult female tick takes on one last blood meal, then lays thousands of eggs in the soil, which hatch as larvae to start the entire process over again. Ticks are common parasites, and numerous species occur.


Oh, how I dislike chiggers. I am a person that acquires an infestation of chiggers every single year. Unlike popular belief, chiggers, also called red bugs, do not burrow into your skin. Instead, they inject their saliva into pores or hair follicles, and the saliva is an enzyme that dissolves tissue. The chigger then sucks up the juice as its meal. It is the reaction to the saliva that causes the intense itching in humans. It is only the larvae chiggers that are worrisome, and they are so small they are not really even visible to the naked eye.

Humans are not the preferred host for chiggers, as they would rather have chicken, birds or reptiles as their food fare. Any grassy or weedy areas may support chiggers. Immediately upon arriving home after a trip to the woods or a walk in a field, it is smart to take a shower with lots of soap. The young chiggers are removed by washing, and this can lessen your chances of being miserable for the following week. Adult chiggers do not parasitize humans, and they can often be seen walking on the ground. They appear more like tiny spiders clad in bright red velvet, very unlike the larvae that create such a miserable experience for people.


Caterpillars come in a variety of colors, shapes and sizes. Some mimic bird droppings, others are adorned with an incredible array of spines or projections, and still others are just known as wooly bears. Many people feel they can predict the severity of the winter by the width of the color bands on these fuzzy little creatures. There are, however, some species of caterpillars that can inflict intense burning and pain upon brushing up against one of these little gems. The following species are of concern in Georgia.

Saddleback Caterpillar

Saddleback Caterpillar

This is one of the most strikingly beautiful caterpillars in all of North America. The bright-green body is brown at each end, and there is a bold brown saddle, outlined in white in the middle of its back. The color is so contrasted that it almost appears to be fake. At each end of the inch-long caterpillar there are horns with little spikes, which are the hairs that produce the sting. These are called “urticating hairs” and venom is produced by these hairs.

Also, this caterpillar is a “slug” caterpillar, which means it does not have the typical legs that most caterpillars we are familiar with, exhibit. Instead, these caterpillars have small thoracic legs that cannot be seen even as the caterpillar is crawling. The author has found numerous saddle- backs feeding on iris leaves and just brushing up against the foliage can produce stinging that may last for a few hours. A good method to assist in relieving pain is to use tape over the sting to remove any hairs that may have dislodged and may be in contact with the skin.

Puss Caterpillar

This is a very plain brown or reddish-brown caterpillar and like the saddleback, is also a “slug” caterpillar. They appear as a little fuzzy or hairy brown thing and really do not even resemble what most people know as a caterpillar. Underneath the brownish hairs are venomous spines that can produce incredible pain, and some people have acute sensitivity to the venom of this species.

Bees & Wasps

Collectively, bees and wasps are responsible for many serious allergic reactions in humans, especially when multiple stings occur. Bees and wasps come in a variety of colors, sizes and shapes. Most sting when disturbed, and some anger quite easily especially when their hive is threatened. Of concern in the southeastern states are yellowjackets, bald faced hornets, bumblebees, cicada killers, European hornets, honey bees, red wasps and the velvet ant, which is actually a wasp. Collectively, most of these have hives with many members and some, like the yellowjacket, bald faced hornet and honey bees may have hundreds of workers… all of which will sacrifice themselves to defend their nest. When a person disturbs a nest, the insects erupt with a fury and may chase the intruder for 100 yards or more. Anyone known to have sensitivity to bee stings should carry an Epi-Pen whenever outdoors. It could be their only savior should an unfortunate encounter occur.

Ants – Velvet Ant (wasp)

The velvet ant is quite common throughout the southeastern United States and is very fond of sandy soil habitats. The name velvet ant is a misnomer as it should be referred to as a velvet wasp. The females are wingless and are bi-colored in red and black. They are covered in fine hairs giving an appearance of being clad in velvet. The female is terrestrial and feeds on flower nectar. The stinger is extremely long, and the sting is amazingly painful. Another name for this wasp is “cow- killer” as the sting supposedly can kill a cow. The male velvet ant has wings and thus is able to search large areas for females in which to breed.

Fire Ant

Fire ants are well established in Georgia and the entire southern United States, and they have created a real nuisance for people as well as environmentally for the regions where they are now found. These little ants live in colonies of thousands, and their ability to sense pheromones from pipping eggs has resulted in population declines of many species of reptiles and birds. There is evidence that fire ants eat and destroy eggs of ground-nesting birds, including wild turkeys.

People disturbing a nest may not be aware of the ants until a signal is given which directs all of the ants to sting at the same time, resulting in massive numbers of stings that may be life threatening to people that experience allergic reactions to the venom.

Assassin Bug (Wheel Bug)

Assassin bugs do not typically bite people, but they will when cornered or disturbed. They have a very long, biting/sucking mouth part that can easily pierce human skin.

These 1 1/2-inch-long insects often are found on flowering plants where they ambush insects coming for a nectar meal. They can easily overpower insects the size of bumblebees. Although the bite does not have any venom, it is none-the-less very painful.

Plants That Do Damage: Many plants exhibit adaptations that prevent them from being consumed by herbivores, and these adaptations work very effectively in deterring people. Some plants exude oil that, in contact with human skin, may result in rashes and blisters that may take weeks to heal. Others may have urticating hairs that immediately upon contact create a stinging pain. These are the basic plant types of concern in Georgia, and, unlike animals, plants are stationary. As long as people recognize the ones that need to be avoided, problems from these plants can be prevented.


Stinging Nettle

The spurge nettle is a plant that grows in sandy soils, and it produces attractive white flowers. The plant stem is covered in small spines which produce the “urticaria,” which is the substance that stings when it contacts human skin. The stinging nettle is similar in its stinging action, but the leaves are more similar to mint leaves than they are to spurge nettle. Stinging nettle typically grows in damp areas, and it grows in thick clumps. Unsuspecting people walking in shorts into an area with stinging nettle can be painfully reminded of their mishap.

Poison Ivy, Oak & Sumac

Poison Ivy

Poison ivy is one of the most prevalent plants in some areas of the Southeast. Even along trails in some of our most famous national parks and recreation areas, there are places where poison ivy has taken over the ground and has ascended high into the canopy. Poison ivy is the southern vine form that has three-leaf clusters, and it is recognized by most people that enjoy the outdoors. In northern Georgia, poison oak is common and in some ways is very similar to poison ivy. Some botanists feel the plants are extremely closely related and may even be the same plant but geographically grow differently in different soil types. The typical poison oak is woody stemmed and stands self sup- porting (erect), and the leaves are heavily toothed along their edges. The leaves also appear to be more leathery in texture. Poison sumac grows as a shrub and typically has its feet wet. It grows in northern bogs, and its com- pound leaves look very “sumac” like in appearance. All three of these plants produce “urushiol,” which is the oil that many people react to. Reactions vary from mild to severe, and contact from breathing air where poison ivy, oak or sumac has been burned can be extremely serious as it effects the bronchial tubes and may result in not being able to breathe. Some people do not react to the oil, but after future contacts they may develop sensitivity to the oil so immunity is never certain. Learning to recognize these plants and avoidance are one’s best defenses.

Enjoyment of the great outdoors without the misery of a nasty encounter is easily accomplished by just learning to recognize the few species of insects, spiders, scorpions and plants that may be the source of discomfort.

People often fear most what they do not understand, and just a little knowledge of our incredibly diverse species will provide a greater appreciation for our flora and fauna and allow even greater enjoyment of the outdoors.

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