Grinning over ‘woolly bear’ predictions

It wasn’t until relatively recently that I grew aware of the woolly bear. I’m sure they have them in Pennsylvania but my world in those days didn’t look outward as it does now.

For you not aware of this little wonder, it is a hairy caterpillar a couple of inches long with a reddish-brown stripe between two black ends. Seen exclusively in the fall, some consider it a predictor of the weather, the subject of my column.

I confess now that I hadn’t given this little bug much (if any) thought beyond knowing I had heard that the size of that rusty stripe foretold the severity of the approaching winter. How, I wondered. And why?

And, perhaps even more germane, who are these critters? Where do they come from? And where do they go? Beyond living my garage, that is.

Being ignorantly unaware, I couldn’t figure out why, when I typed “woolly bear” on the computer, a large photograph of a moth popped up. The Isabella Tiger Moth, to be exact. Not terribly distinguished, it’s the color of an orange leaf in the fall with just a few randomly dispersed black spots. I’m not sure I’ve ever even noticed one.

The female moth lays her eggs which then hatch into the caterpillar which in turn spins a cocoon which will become once more a moth. Where and how they spend their winter is probably most interesting to us since the moth isn’t “much to look at.”

If left outside the larva literally freezes solid. Surviving in this state (and it can), it thaws as the temperatures rise and again becomes the moth. However, not being terribly stupid, these little critters would vastly prefer to winter under bark or leaves, beneath a rock or in a secluded log cavity. Guess that explains why I find them in the garage, even one in a kitchen cabinet (I have no idea how).

The Internet even has directions for building a house for them: a little box with plants so it can feed (it prefers milkweed but won’t be too choosy) and then a stick for its metamorphosis back to a cocoon. It is suggested that you not pick one up because its setae (those hairs which are definitely not woolly) can cause irritation on sensitive skin. If threatened, it will also curl up in a ball and play well sure, ‘possum.’ (I think I have enough to care for as it is now without creating caterpillar homes.)

Our overriding question has to do with its well-known weather-forecasting ability. We’re told that the wider the reddish band in the middle as compared to the black ends, the milder the winter to come.

It was a curator at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, Dr. C. H. Curran, who began studying this phenomenon in 1948. Look very closely and you’ll see that the caterpillar has thirteen distinct segments. Over the following eight years, Dr, Curran kept measuring those red parts. His studies produced an average between 5.3 and 5.6 and indeed the years were milder than the average winter. [Come on, folks. That small a difference would not convince me of anything except perhaps there could be better ways to spend my hours than measuring the stripes of caterpillars.]

Most scientists now pooh-pooh the predictability as anything more than good-natured fun. Still, it can be a chance to escape the city or to join one of the now fairly common Woolly Bear Festivals. Vermilion, Ohio, features a contest for best costume while Lewisburg, Pa., offers crafts and a pet parade (probably without the caterpillar). For the past five years, there has been a Woolly Bear Jamboree in Oil City, Pa., (practically next door) which features “Oil Valley Vick” with high local hopes that it can grow to be as popular as Punxsutawney and their Phil. Watch out, Dunkirk Dave!

Truth? To quote Wikipedia: “In reality, hatchlings from the same clutch of eggs can display considerable variation in their color distribution and the brown band tends to grow with age. If there is any truth to the tale, it is highly speculative.”

My caterpillar has seven red segments which makes it an old-timer since the band becomes wider each time the caterpillar molts. It also means our winter of 2013-14 should be exceptionally mild.

Oh, yeah.

Susan Crossett is a Cassadaga resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com