Laura Dean Bennett
Since ancient times, humans have had an interest in knowing what weather to expect – after all, the founder of the science of meteorology is believed to have been Aristotle.
We have lots of weather predictors around these parts – the number of foggy days in August, animals’ fur density, nest placement, insect behavior and even the colored stripes on certain caterpillars.
But one of our favorite predictors of winter winter weather is the wooly worm.
The first thing to know about the wooly worm is that it isn’t really a worm at all.
It’s the larval stage of a Isabella Tiger Moth caterpillar.
In the fall, people examine the wandering wooly worms to determine whether winter will be mild or harsh – at the beginning, the middle and or the end.
The fuzzy caterpillars are especially active in the fall. Since they over-winter in the larval stage, they set about seeking shelter under fallen trees and leaves before freezing weather sets in.
At about two inches in length, the wooly worm is easily recognizable by the soft black and cinnamon brown bristles covering its body.
They usually have black bands at each end, and a band of reddish-brown in the middle.
Their bodies are divided into thirteen segments with each segment thought to represent a week of winter.
Each brown segment is thought to reveal a mild week of winter while black segments are indicative of harsher weather.
According to folk wisdom, when the brown bands on fall wooly bears are narrow, it means a harsh winter is coming.
The wider the brown band, the milder the winter will be.
Most scientists who study these creatures don’t believe the fur color of the wooly worm can predict the future, but they say the little critters can give us a glimpse into the weather of the recent past.
Wooly worms can shed their “fur” up to six times in a life span, which is about two years.
Each time their bristles are shed and grow back, they come in more brown than black.
So, if you see a wooly worm with a lot of brown bristles, it means it’s lived through a number of sheddings. This is where weather comes into play.
A long, cold winter could mean a caterpillar won’t hatch until late in the spring, and when we see little guys that are more black than brown, it’s because they are still young.
On the flip side, a caterpillar hatched earlier in the spring, thanks to a warm winter, will have a longer life span, will shed more times and therefore will appear more brown than black.
So, really, the coloring on a wooly worm tells us more about last winter’s weather than what this winter has in store.
But we won’t let that get in the way of any wooly worm fun.
There are wooly worm festivals held all over the country, complete with caterpillar races and an official declaration of the wooly worm’s prediction for the coming winter.
And wooly worms aren’t the only ones weighing in with weather predictions.
There are lots of predictive natural signs to be on the lookout for.
Hornets nests built in the tops of trees indicate a mild winter ahead; nests built close to the ground indicate that a harsh winter is coming.
When leaves fall early, autumn and winter will be mild; when leaves fall later, winter will be severe.
If the first snow falls on unfrozen ground, expect a mild winter.
Flowers blooming in late autumn are a sign of a bad winter.
Uh, oh – I still have roses blooming.
A warm November is the sign of a bad winter.
A ring around the sun or moon means rain or snow coming soon.
But back to wooly worms. What I’d like to know is, how do we know which wooly worm to use for our predictions?
Since I’ve been working on this story, I’ve been asking people from one end of the county to the other what the wooly worms look like where they live. And I’ve gotten a wide range of answers from “a little black at both ends” to “black on one end” and “orange all over.”
One lady even told me she saw one that was solid pastel yellow.
So, what does this mean?
I’ll tell you what I think.
My prediction is that we’ll have a winter that lasts ‘til maybe next April. There will be periods of very cold weather with many light snowfalls and a few very big snowstorms.
And I didn’t even need a wooly worm to tell me that.