Why are people so afraid to poke things with a stick these days?

Me holding/manipulating noseburn (Tragia sp.) plant before I knew what it was: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/25845008 . A few minutes later it felt like a somewhat painful itchy insect sting.

That was not nearly as bad as when I touched what turned out to be an io moth caterpillar. The spines looked like those of tiger moth caterpillars I had handled before so I thought it would be okay. After being stung I read that the thick spikes I saw are non-stinging, but there are also thin stinging hairs mixed in that I didn’t see. Now I don’t touch any caterpillar with hairs/spikes out of an abundance of caution.


Yes, 2020, the pandemic. The National Forest rangers here in Oregon were afraid for their safety because people who could no longer hang out in restaurants, bars and night clubs decided that the national forests were their new entertainment and became hostile when the rangers told them they had to pack out their trash and be careful of where they pooped, etc. Like all major disruptions, it brought out the best in some (“pivoting” to keep their employees employed, donating and volunteering to get food and info to those in need, etc.) and the worst in others (people trashing our forests, etc.).


I think it is important to distinguish between poking/handling dead vs live things, since disturbing live species unnecessarily can be disruptive to an ecosystem, and because live things may hurt you

I’m not against any handling of organisms, but in some places it is illegal or just bad for the ecosystem, so I don’t see a problem with people being hesitant to disturb wildlife

I also think it is reasonable that people want to avoid being near something they cannot identify, as they cannot tell it is harmless if they don’t know what it is, for example venomous and nonvenomous snakes can look very similar, and the same is true for insects

For example this is safe to hold in your hand (if you actually manage to catch it) https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/183385706

While these will swarm you and chase you a mile while stinging over and over if a nest is disturbed https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/183275923. As you can see I still got close to take the picture, but I knew the spot didn’t have a nest, and that I had a way to quickly get inside and slam the door if there was a nest I didn’t know about. I don’t think people should be scared of insects or other animals, but I would not encourage people to approach something that they cannot distinguish from a dangerous species

I disagree with the claims that have been made in this this discussion that most small animals are safe to handle, most reptiles and mammals bite, and can lead to infection, many amphibians have toxic secretions, and many insects bite, sting, or have toxic secretions, I really don’t recommend picking up anything you cannot identify

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As @JaneBP touched on, I think it’s important for new people to learn from more experienced people, at the very least learning the more dangerous species/how to distinguish harmless from dangerous. But on the other hand, a huge amount of learning often comes through risks and mistakes.


Oh yes, I’ve had my experience with that one, too. Ouch!

Except for the fatal ones! Guaranteed you didn’t learn anything if you’re dead! LOL!

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That’s basically because they are too close to the ground to get a photo and too fragile to bend.

As a biologist who later morphed into a pathologist I guess I have a more relaxed attitude to these things than many people but I do wonder what their problem is. After all it’s dead for heaven’s sake. Wear gloves or at least don’t put your fingers in your mouth until you have washed them.

Usually I’d just say pick the thing and leave it. It’ll continue releasing spores and it’ll still be available for wildlife to consume if they wish.

If this isn’t an option, other means include, you can always stick your phone under the cap to get a picture, or better yet, bring a small hand mirror and use that to reflect what the gills look like.

But trust me when I say that this definitely isn’t always the reason. I see far too many shots of polypores that are halfway up trees that just need one more picture from a slightly different angle to get a good ID. Or mushrooms that are tipped in a way where if the observer just took another picture from the other side, they’d at least get some view of the gills.

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Can’t speak at all about plants or fungi, which are surely outside of my wheelhouse, but I prefer less touching of animals (or at least vertebrates). I find handling oceanic inverts can be fun and relatively low-impact (I run a touch tank at a museum with crabs, snails, and shellfish) and lord knows I spent lots of time flipping rocks and capturing bugs in my garden growing up (although I would recommend against handling centipedes based on personal experience).
On the other hand, I think most vertebrates are either too fragile or too dangerous (either due to disease or actual attempts to hurt you) to justify handling them live without a clear purpose and the knowledge to understand how to handle them safely.
Things are also complicated by the fact that people with different levels of expertise are going to approach handling completely differently. Would the average kid be able to recognize the difference between a docile bee and a defensive wasp without unfortunate personal experience?


Animals are definitely more dangerous. Thankfully my dad was fairly outdoorsey so i learned young what was safe and what is bad to touch.

For what its worth for anyone who doesn’t realize, as far as we know, all mushrooms/fungi are safe to touch. Its even safe to taste mushrooms, as long as you spit them out, dont consume them, etc. I know people who have safely taste tested Amanita sect. Phalloideae shrooms.

Just dont go consuming unknown mushrooms or breathing in a facefull of puffball spores

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I don’t think there is a difference between bees and wasps from a safety standpoint, both taxa include species that will conduct possibly life threatening swarm attacks when a nest is disturbed, species that will sting only if handled, and a few species that lack a stinger, but all insects with a stinger are likely to sting if handled

I very much agree with your overall comment, I just didn’t want someone to see this and think they could pick up bees with their hands

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True. I was thinking stingless species like carpenter bees.

In my younger days I did handle rattlesnakes and learned how to do it reasonably safely from herpetologists I worked with. Never got bit but some of my fellow snake wranglers did. I won’t do it today. The physical and financial cost of being envenomated is too high. Since I do mostly photography these days, taking a picture from a safe distance is the way to go and I would never encourage anyone to follow my past behavior. But I still enjoy grabbing a nonvenomous snake, even if I sometimes get bit in the process.

I too thought I had heard that carpenter bees are stingless, but table 1 of this paper lists the pain level of carpenter bee stings as 2-2.5 out of 4 https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6651/11/7/427

According to Dr. Wikipedia, only the females can sting. Maybe that’s where the idea of them being stingless came from? Regardless, I’d definitely feel safer handling a borer bee than most wasps – and though I rarely do so by choice, their habit of flying into people at top speed means I often do make contact :P.

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I always touch everything, maybe too comfortably sometimes haha. I’ve recently gotten interested in fungi. So as one does, I touch them all, to get all the angles. It had only occured to me about 3 months after gaining this particular interest, to actually ask an expert if it was even safe to be handling certain fungi with bare hands.

Turns out it is… well unless you live in Australia… But almost everything is dangerous there, so let’s ignore that haha.

edit: I am still flabbergasted by the amount of people that run away from damselflies/dragonflies, claiming they’re gonna bite them??? Where do these people get these ideas from…

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This is true for all stinging hymenoptera, so its odd that it got misinterpreted just for carpenter bees

wait what? why do they do that? I’ve never seen that
What tends to trigger stings most is being held in place, eg between fingers, I find that other contact with insects in my area does not trigger stings unless the contact is with a nest or the insect is an American Furrowed Ant (Myrmica americana)


Honestly I think this is a fair point as well, in that medical treatment of any kind is so expensive (at least in the US) and quite frankly hard to access that I think that can and probably does discourage at least some people from doing anything that could even potentially land you in need of medical attention.

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wait what? why do they do that? I’ve never seen that

I lived for a while in a house with pretty serious Eastern carpenter bee nests in the siding of the porch, and when you sat or walked around there they would occasionally fly into people before re-orienting themselves and flying away. Very endearing.