All the wooly bears are preparing for their winter hibernation now, and I’m not talking just about the big bruins. Rather, I mean the fuzzy caterpillars you can hold in one hand while photographing them with the other. (I wouldn’t recommend that you try to hold a black bear in or even with one hand, as they tend to get cranky about things like that.)

Actually, the wooly bear caterpillars, AKA wooly worms, aren’t too happy about it either. The one I found on an old chair—which in redneck fashion had gotten left beside the garage instead of in the dumpster—attempted to beat a swift retreat when I came back with my camera. When I tried to reposition the caterpillar, it promptly curled up, as they are inclined to do when touched.

wooly bear caterpillar

Furry Forecasting

So, I had to come back later when it had relaxed a bit to get more photos. After “reading” this particular wooly worm, I’m predicting that we will have at least four or five weeks of mild weather this winter and eight or so of more harsh conditions. The worms supposedly have 13 segments, each of which represents one week, with the black segments meaning bad weather, the reddish-brown segments good weather.

I’m guessing we are supposed to disregard the whereabouts of the black sections. Otherwise, since those always appear on the ends, we’d invariably have to have our worst storms in early winter and late winter and the milder temps in the middle.

Naturally, we aren’t supposed to take any of this too seriously. It’s just one of those weird weather prediction tricks we rural folk used to come up with back before we had the Internet to entertain us. Others include how tight the corn husks are, how high the hornets’ nests hang, and the shapes inside persimmon seeds.

If you're heading to a wooly worm festival, or just love wooly worm, here's the perfect tee shirt to celebrate.

Isabella tiger moth

The wooly bear caterpillar, also called the black-ended bear and banded wooly bear, actually is the larvae of the Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). Common throughout most of North American, that moth flutters yellow-orange and ecru wings lightly marked with darker stripes and spots.

If you see an all-black caterpillar, don’t panic and assume that we are going to have the winter to end all winters. It probably is another “big cat” caterpillar instead, perhaps that of the giant leopard moth. Therefore, its color means nothing at all!

Here's a lovely book with over 100 color images about the wooly bear caterpillar. Good for kids of all ages.

A Long Winter's Nap

The genuine wooly bears will hibernate inside crevices over winter, where an antifreeze-like compound prevents them turning into balls of mush. (I found one inside a box of flowerpots in the garage, which I suspect could have been the same caterpillar from my photo session.) They occasionally will wake up and prowl around if the temperature rises above freezing—to make sure that it’s not spring yet.

wooly bear caterpillar

Once, it actually is spring, they’ll feast on weeds before spinning their cocoons to make moths, which will lay the eggs for new wooly worms and etc. There reportedly are a couple generations of caterpillars per year, so it only is the autumn ones that have to do the whole winter hibernation thing while the others head for Florida. Just kidding! No, since the adult moths generally don’t live longer than a couple weeks, I assume those which pupate in summer don’t survive that summer.

Even so, they reportedly can produce ultrasonic sounds from their “chests” (thoraxes). Though that sounds like a "batty" thing to do, those sounds apparently help repel predators and attract mates.

So, the tiger moth has its own kind of roar. Just as its larvae have their own kind of foreboding!


Photos: The moth photo is by LadyAshleyR from the Dave's Garden BugFiles. The other photos are my own.