Predicting Winter Weather: Woolly Bear Caterpillars

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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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Comments

In up state NY (Watertown)

By Theresa Upstate

In up state NY (Watertown) yesterday I saw my first Woolly Bear of the season and it was very black on both ends with an equal amount of rust in the middle. So in three parts two were very black and one deep rust. :)

I just saw my first woolly

By In Carthage, NY (near Theresa)

I just saw my first woolly bear of this season and, believe it or not, it was about a half inch of black on the head and the rest was all brown/orange. Does this mean no winter?????

I also just saw my first

By Enrufo

I also just saw my first woolly bear of the season, in Albany, NY. It had a pretty broad band of brown, maybe 1/2 of its body length, in the middle. Mild winter would be nice.

This is the first time I hear

By Chrysa_1

This is the first time I hear this about the Woolly Bear Caterpillar although I've been seeing them my whole life! Thank you!

I knew of wooly worms in

By Edith Welch

I knew of wooly worms in Nebraska but here in Denver, Colorado I don't find the wooly worms. Do you know what areas the worms do not ive in? and why?

We too were brought up on

By Jill Cowgill

We too were brought up on looking at the wooly bears for how cold the winters would be. We were told that the blacker they were the colder it would be.
Personally, I hope they are wrong, this year's are mostly black. Like most everyone else, the squirrels are very busy collecting this years bumper crop of nuts.

I agree. I have paid

By BethA

I agree. I have paid attention to them all my life, and I am now in my late 40's. It looks like a bad winter this year, the ones I have been seeing are all black with a tail of brown. I am from Northern Indiana, so I can't wait to see them prove itself right as a predictor once again.

I do believe in the woolly

By young gal from Ohio

I do believe in the woolly bears prediction of who winter will be. I have lived in Ohio for 10 yrs now. I heard this when I first moved here. I was like,,, what that's crazy.. But they did seem to let us know and they were correct just about every yr. Crazy but thankful to be ready for a harsh winter. I grew up in Maine. We have BAD winters up there. So this was very interesting. So to end this note.. I seen 4 this week and they are all Black.. with just a little rust brown by the head and on its tail.. and we have had much colder weather for this time of yr already.. not much of a fall weather.

well Hope you have a safe winter and Stay WARM :0)

katriz
Jackson Center, Ohio

Interesting that we are

By crystalball

Interesting that we are getting such a disparity in colors of wooly bears in Ohio. I was out walking just minutes ago and saw four with very wide brown centers with just a bit of black at each end. This would indicate a mild winter based on wooly bear lore.

I believe in the woolly bear.

By rayah

I believe in the woolly bear. I have seen several in my area this year, and the squirrels has been very busy this fall. I'm looking for a long cold winter this year in East Central Kentucky.

Very interesting and

By adirondack13424

Very interesting and informative article. A friend of mine recently told me squirrels were very active this past summer gathering all the nuts they could, which he said they do for in preparation for a long harsh winter. I hope he's wrong!

I was raised on this way of

By kentuckywoman54

I was raised on this way of forecasting the winters. The woolys here in my part of Ky. are showing very little brown. Very large area of black on both ends. Will be interesting to note what kind of winter we end up with. Unusually cold for this time of year and early frost so far...

I live in N.E. Ohio just east

By wolley nut

I live in N.E. Ohio just east of Cleveland and the wolly bears I'm finding are almost all brown with only the very tips on each end black. This would indicate a warm winter here. I hope they are right.

I live in this area of Ohio

By Chyk

I live in this area of Ohio too and the Woolies we've seen have a large brown middle with just the ends being black. Just like last year! My bet is on the Woolie and we are having a mild winter (so I hope!)

I live in the same part of

By buck hunter

I live in the same part of Ohio I've been out archery hunting for the past few weeks and seen dozens off woolly bears with little to no brown stripe and the buck I got Monday over I'm pa had more fat on real it then pony deer I've ever got I would say we are going to have one real bad winter

I have also heard this all my

By Tigress

I have also heard this all my life and I agree has been accurate to a point. My belief is old sayings from generation to generation have thier reasons to carry on, If they did not believe in knowing what they see to be the truth, which is to predict the coming winter. Good feeling to read this article.
Thank you

i have heard as a child for

By awtup6h

i have heard as a child for weather forcasting the catapiller is quite accurate in priducting the coming winter

This is something I've heard

By Craig King

This is something I've heard all my life, passed down from several generations in my family. I never made the empirical observation myself, but my grandmother did every year, and she swore by it! Some other signs she looked for were the thickness of hulls on hickory nuts and walnuts, and if the garden produced a bountiful crop that summer.

I have to agree some with

By Howard Kruse

I have to agree some with Craig King. I have watched the Wolly Worm for years but have not gotten any answers about the weather. I find the the Quantity of Nuts and wild berries that are produced, the thickness of the shells are a better clue as to the temperature of the winter. Also find that the closer to the ground that the wasps and hornets build their nests in the summer the colder it will be in the winter. I think that folks in different areas have their own special ways of determining how they think the weather is forecasted in that area.
Hardyville,Va

In MN, we know we are in for

By Edgar Toensing

In MN, we know we are in for a long winter when the highway crews are putting up snow fences in Aug.

hmmm very cool and my

By krenaudsmith

hmmm very cool and my daughter was facinated when i read it to her

Very interesting. Thanks for

By howea0725

Very interesting. Thanks for the good read & keep on predicting!

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