“What do we have here?” An older gentleman that I worked with, bent over and examined a black and orange, fuzzy little caterpillar, as it tried to scurry toward the safety of a pile of leaves. “ This little guy says we’re going to have a brutal winter, this year.” Only a few short weeks later a harsh Wisconsin winter was well underway and thus began my fascination with the wooly bear caterpillar and his super power of weather prediction.

Folklore bestows the wooly bear caterpillar the ability to predict the coming winter. These legends may slightly differ by location, but the tales are wide spread enough that cities and towns in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Kentucky and North Carolina hold wooly bear festivals in late summer or early autumn, to honor these fuzzy little caterpillars.

The wooly bear is the caterpillar of the tiger moth (Pyrrharctia Isabella). Their fuzzy bodies have a stripe of black at each end with a stripe of orange-rust in the center. These stripes are where the lore comes in. A wooly bear caterpillar’s body has 13 segments; these segments are said to represent the 13 weeks of winter starting at the wooly bear’s head. How many of these segments are black, predicts how bad winter will be. If the black stripe at the head is thicker, it means the beginning of winter will be nasty. If the black stripe at the bottom of the caterpillar is thicker, winter will be worse towards the end. If both end black stripes are small, but the middle orange stripe is thick, it will be a very mild winter.

Taking this lore one step further, it is also said that the direction a wooly bear caterpillar is traveling predicts the coming winter. If a wooly bear caterpillar is walking in the direction of south, it is believed that he is trying to escape before a brutal winter comes. If the wooly bear caterpillar is walking in the direction of north, then the winter will be mild. The flaw with this part of the folklore is that wooly bears overwinter as caterpillars even in frigid locations of the Arctic. Though, they can travel up to a mile each day--making them one of the fastest caterpillars--they do not migrate. In winter, a wooly bear caterpillar simply finds a nice warm bed of leaves or garden debris to hibernate in and their bodies are kept from freezing by a sort of anti-freeze chemical they produce.

Wooly bear caterpillars generally eat weeds and do not damage ornamental plants. They are a common sight in autumn, but stay hidden in garden debris most of the year. In autumn, new generations of wooly bear caterpillars hatch from eggs and hibernate through winter in warm garden beds or leaves on the forest floor. In spring, when they come out of hibernation, they spend the warm seasons eating and growing. The caterpillars will again hibernate through the winter and awake in spring to form a chrysalis. In extremely cold locations, it may take several years before a wooly bear caterpillar forms a chrysalis, because seasons are short and it’s food is scarce.

In 1948, Dr. C.H. Curran, the curator of insects at the American Museum Of Natural History in New York, and his wife founded a group called The Original Society Of The Friends Of The Wooly Bear. Every autumn between 1948 and 1956, Curran, his wife and a group of select scientist and friends would go to Bear Mountain State Park and collect hundreds of wooly bear caterpillars. They would then study the stripes of these caterpillars and make a weather prediction for the coming winter. This weather prediction was published each year in the New York Herald Tribune.

Many other scientists scoffed at Curran and his Society’s research and predictions. It was generally thought that this research was really more of a fun weekend getaway than scientific study. Yet, for almost ten years the society continued its work and play and their findings were published. While not always accurate, Curran’s annual predictions had many readers of the New York Herald Tribune interested in the mysteries of Nature. Perhaps Dr. Curran and The Original Society Of The Friends Of The Wooly Bear are meant to remind us to not take everything so serious and to take time to smell the roses, or more aptly: take time to look at the caterpillars.