Predicting Winter Weather: Woolly Bear Caterpillars

I know, I called this Caterpillar by the wrong name.  Yes, I was saying woolly Bugger.
The right name is Woolly Bear or Woolly Worm.  ~  Buddy Huggins

The woolly bear caterpillar—with its 13 distinct segments of black and reddish-brown—has the reputation of being able to forecast the coming winter weather.

Here are the history, facts, and lore about this legendary caterpillar.

 How the Woolly Bear Became "Famous"

  • In the fall of 1948, Dr. C. H. Curran, curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, took his wife 40 miles north of the city to Bear Mountain State Park to look at woolly bear caterpillars.
  • Dr. Curran collected as many caterpillars as he could in a day, determined the average number of reddish-brown segments, and forecast the coming winter weather through a reporter friend at The New York Herald Tribune.
  • Dr. Curran's experiment, which he continued over the next eight years, attempted to prove scientifically a weather rule of thumb that was as old as the hills around Bear Mountain. The resulting publicity made the woolly bear the most recognizable caterpillar in North America.

What is the Woolly Bear?

The caterpillar Curran studied, the true woolly bear, is the larval form of Pyrrharctia isabella, the Isabella tiger moth. See and share this picture of a woolly bear!
Here is more background:
  • This medium-size moth, with yellowish-orange and cream-colored wings spotted with black, is common from northern Mexico throughout the United States and across the southern third of Canada.
  • As moths go, the Isabella isn't much to look at compared with other species, but its immature larva, called the black-ended bear or the woolly bear (and, throughout the South, woolly worm) is one of the few caterpillars most people can identify.
  • Woolly bears do not actually feel much like wool—they are covered with short, stiff bristles of hair.
  • In field guides, they're found among the "bristled" species, which include the all-yellow salt marsh caterpillar and several species in the tiger moth family. Not all are 'woolly bears!'
  • Woolly bears, like other caterpillars, hatch during warm weather from eggs laid by a female moth.
  • Mature woolly bears search for overwintering sites under bark or inside cavities of rocks or logs. (That's why you see so many of them crossing roads and sidewalks in the fall.)
  • When spring arrives, woolly bears spin fuzzy cocoons and transform inside them into full-grown moths.
  • Typically, the bands at the ends of the caterpillar are black, and the one in the middle is brown or orange, giving the woolly bear its distinctive striped appearance.

Do Woolly Bear Caterpillars Forecast Winter Weather?

According to legend, the wider that middle brown section is (i.e., the more brown segments there are), the milder the coming winter will be. Conversely, a narrow brown band is said to predict a harsh winter. But is it true?

  • Between 1948 and 1956, Dr. Curran's average brown-segment counts ranged from 5.3 to 5.6 out of the 13-segment total, meaning that the brown band took up more than a third of the woolly bear's body. As those relatively high numbers suggested, the corresponding winters were milder than average.
  • But Curran was under no scientific illusion: He knew that his data samples were small. Although the experiments popularized and, to some people, legitimized folklore, they were simply an excuse for having fun. Curran, his wife, and their group of friends escaped the city to see the foliage each fall, calling themselves The Original Society of the Friends of the Woolly Bear.
  • Thirty years after the last meeting of Curran's society, the woolly bear brown-segment counts and winter forecasts were resurrected by the nature museum at Bear Mountain State Park. The annual counts have continued, more or less tongue in cheek, since then.
  • For the past 10 years, Banner Elk, North Carolina, has held an annual "Woolly Worm Festival" each October, highlighted by a caterpillar race. Retired mayor Charles Von Canon inspects the champion woolly bear and announces his winter forecast.
Most scientists discount the folklore of woolly bear predictions as just that, folklore. Says Ferguson from his office in Washington, "I've never taken the notion very seriously. You'd have to look at an awful lot of caterpillars in one place over a great many years in order to say there's something to it."
Mike Peters, an entomologist at the University of Massachusetts, doesn't disagree, but he says there could, in fact, be a link between winter severity and the brown band of a woolly bear caterpillar. "There's evidence," he says, "that the number of brown hairs has to do with the age of the caterpillar—in other words, how late it got going in the spring. The [band] does say something about a heavy winter or an early spring. The only thing is . . . it's telling you about the previous year."
What do you think? Do woolly bears predict winter weather? What other signs of the seasons tell us about coming weather?
If you're interested in winter weather predictions, be sure to check out The Old Farmer's Almanac, too!
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Woolly Worms Predicting Winter Snow

What can you say about the winter of 2011-12? Or maybe the non-winter? It was an unseasonably warm and dry winter and while some of us like snow it pleased a lot of people.
But now we’re fast approaching the upcoming cold and although the weather forecasters are usually wrong about projecting snowfall there may be one way to predict just how much white stuff we’re going to get.

Will the woolly worms be right again this year?
Yes, we’re talking woolly worms. Those cute and fuzzy little guys (actually the larvae of the Isabella tiger moth) are known weather wizards and this year they’re saying, “Get ready!”
Are the woolly worm’s bands really an accurate way to predict the winter weather? Dr. C.H. Curran, former curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History tested the woolly worms’ accuracy in the 1950’s. His surveys found an 80% accuracy rate for the woolly worms’ weather predictions.
According to local television station, Fox 4 in Kansas City, the woollies are mostly black with just a pinch of brown and this means a harsh winter. Last year the worms were almost entirely brown and we had our lowest snow amount ever recorded and warm temps that had us outside in January.
So based on this “scientific” evidence we may be facing a more normal winter with a chance of excessive snowfall. If you listen closely you can hear school kids rejoicing and planning their snow days.
It’s probably smart to plan your snow days as well. When winter dumps a white blanket on Kansas City, Olympic Lawn and Landscape transforms from your lawn authority to your snow removal hero and we can clear that white stuff from your residential and commercial property. We’re on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so you won’t be left out in the cold when Mother Nature gets a good laugh and stops us all in our tracks.
Our appointments book up fast when the skies darken so if your home or business depends on effective snow removal give us a call and let us clear your path.

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