Woolly Bear Caterpillars and Weather Prediction

Using Woolly Worms for a Winter Forecast

By The Old Farmer's Almanac
woolly-bear-caterpillar-winter

Based on the measurements of the distinctive woolly bear caterpillar, you can figure out your weather forecast!

University of Missouri

The woolly bear caterpillar—also called woolly worm and fuzzy worm—has the reputation of being able to forecast the coming winter weather. Whether this is fact or folklore, learn more about this legendary caterpillar and how to “read” the worm.

Here’s the legend: The Woolly Bear caterpillar has 13 distinct segments of either rusty brown or black. The wider the rusty brown sections (or the more brown segments there are), the milder the coming winter will be. The more black there is, the more severe the winter. 

How the Woolly Bear Caterpillar 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 worm the most recognizable caterpillar in North America.

Woolly Bear Caterpillar. Photo by SillyPuttyEnemies/Wikimedia Commons.
Woolly Bear Caterpillar. Photo by SillyPuttyEnemies/Wikimedia Commons.

What is the Woolly Bear Caterpillar?

The caterpillar Curran studied, the banded woolly bear, is the larval form of Pyrrharctia isabella, the Isabella tiger moth.

  • 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.

Isabella Tiger Moth. Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren/Wikimedia Commons.
Isabella Tiger Moth. Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren/Wikimedia Commons.

Do Woolly Bear Caterpillars Forecast Winter Weather?

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 good third of the woolly bear’s body. The corresponding winters were milder than average, and Dr. Curran concluded that the folklore has some merit and might be true.

But Curran was under no scientific illusion: He knew that his data samples were small. Although the experiments legitimized folklore to some, 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. 

If the rusty band is wide, then it will be a mild winter. The more black there is, the more severe the winter. 

Woolly bear caterpillar in defensive posture.
Woolly bear caterpillar in its defensive posture.

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.”

Every year, the wooly worms do indeed look different—and it depends on their region. So, if you come across a local woolly worm, observe the colors of the bands and what they foretell about your winter weather.

What’s the real winter weather prediction for 2018The 2019 Old Farmer’s Almanac was just released! Look inside for our official forecast!

 

Source: 

The 1998 Old Farmer's Almanac

Reader Comments

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very dark wooly

Location: Saint Louis I just found a woolly by the revolving door in our lobby. I thought it was all black but upon closer inspection it does have a short very dark reddish brown band. It's 22 degrees outside today but it's been in the 50's for the better part of the week. I made him a shelter in a small box with tissue but not sure what to do for him. Help!

Woolley Bears in barn

So far there are two just roaming around the barn. I move them under the hay but they just crawl back out and don't seem to have any interest in settling down yet. Almost completely orange so praying for a mild winter here in the Chicago-land area.

Woolly Bear caterpillars

We found three woolly bears in an log pile and they looked just like the ones in the picture. So it should be a normal winter in the suburbs of Chicago, IL. I found another place for them in an unused section of the log pile and I hope they will be okay for next year.

Wooly Bear Caterpillar

I rescued on from the lawn mower this afternoon. I gathered up some grass clippings and dry leaves and gave it a plastic box with holes in it and gave it a warm place to live untill the weather up here in Mass subsides on Saturday. Another Nor' Easter is nipping our heels for later today and into tomorrow. Then this weekend we will set Nostradamus free to become a pretty moth in the spring!!

Wooly Bear

I live in central Ohio and my Wooly Bears are mostly reddish brown with black ends. I wish I could post a picture. I took one yesterday.

Wolly bear caterpillar

My cats found a wolly bear caterpillar were in Absecon NJ it was more black

Wooly Bears Scientific Analysis 2018 - 2019

Perhaps someone at our wonderful Almanac publication could gather all the Wooly Bear sightings as reported here. As it seems there have been a varied crossection of N. America responded. Many of which are calling for harsh winters. I have not observed any yet, but plan to make a foray around our home in hopes if finding some and will report my sightings later.

There are not many items I find in my inbox that I enjoy reading more than my old Farmer's Almanac...thank you Ben and our current staff !

interesting

That’s an interesting idea. We have phenology charts for other types of spring sightings (first bud, etc.) and we have a foliage map.  Maybe a woolly bear map is worth considering! 

Wooly Bear All Black!

I saw on in October in upstate New York that was all black!!! We are in for it!

All Black!

Found one of these Woolly bear caterpillar's today while raking leaves and it was All Black. No brown segment at all this year. Uh Oh....lol

All Black!

Found one of these Woolly bear caterpillar's today while raking leaves and it was All Black. No brown segment at all this year. Uh Oh....lol

WOOLY WORMS

I live in southern Arkansas, northern Louisiana border, I have been seeing a lot of wooly worms, all black and about 3 to 4 inches in length... this legend has been passed down through the family, (yess,we have Native American Indian blood lines), and the story goes, the blacker the worm the colder the winter and the length of the worm, is the amount of snow that you will receive.... it hasn't failed us yet, so maybe the south is getting a good winter this year, we really need to get one, get rid of the mosquitoes..

Wooly worms?

Last year, I saw two of them on the side of my house...I live in Bixby, OK. I had never ever seen these before. Someone said don't touch them, they're fuzzy, spiky stuff can sting you?? Ok no big deal, it was only two.
This year?? We have had thousands!!!!! Alllll over my van, I'd think they're gone, be drivin down the street, open my window and almost immediately there would be one (or more than one!) trying to get in the window! They freak me out, I don't like them, at all!
My kids dont mind them, and also they haven't had hundreds on their cars like I have! I'm still seeing a bunch everyday, usually on my deck where I like to sit outside....I moved where I was parking my van, so they haven't really been on it recently....as I took the dog out today, one dropped outta the tree I was underneath, and landed right next to my foot! Freaked me out! I swear they have radar for me, the only one here afraid of them!
I don't understand how/why we only had a couple last year and this year soooooo many!! Does that mean we will have a ton again next year??? Ick! I want them to stop but they just keep coming and coming and coming!

Yellow in color

Forgot to mention that all of ours here are yellowish. Some white white ones, but mostly yellow. I've only seen one brown/black one and it wasn't at my house, it was somewhere else.

Wrong Caterpillar

Lisa, you are confusing two very distinct caterpillars. There is one yellow/white one that falls from trees and can sting you, but the caterpillars featured in this article is NOT that one.

Don't be afraid of them!

I pick them up whenever I think there's a chance that they might get stepped on. They are so cute. Not sure if they really do predict how cold winter will be, but it's fun to speculate! I've often thought of getting a bumper sticker that says, "I Brake for Woolyworms!" (a.k.a. Wooly Bear Caterpillars).

woolly worm

a customer of mine saw a prey mantis eating a woolly worm

Wolly worm

Found one thus morning more black then yellow bad storms According to this

Wooly Worm

In NE Missouri we have been seeing a lot of all black Wooly worms. We had a very mild winter last year. So according to Mike peters, we should be seeing mostly brown caterpillars? I have been in NE Missouri for about 12 years now and the caterpillars have been right most every year.

woolly worms

I don't know what part of ne mo you live in but I thought the winter was really cold, I don't remember what the wooly worms looked like last yr but this year I have seen gray,white,all brown,all black,a little bit of everything and I live in the very ne corner of mo it's kinda like phil the groundhog prediction it is going to do whatever & we can't change it unless we can afford to go south for the winter I really hope its mild though cause getting out in it to do chores & cut wood when it's nasty out isn't much fun

They predict the winter to

They predict the winter to come right? Not a result of the last

Wooly worm

I SAW A fat black wooly worm in Asheville today.It was solid black with light brown near the body.

woolly Bear

Here is an all beige Woolly Bear on our house in Central Indiana. Oct 10, 2018

Black Wolly

Here in Eastern PA, I've been seeing a lot of black/all black woolly's. With the amount of rain we have received this summer and fall, I would not be surprised if the trend keeps up. Bought a snowblower over the summer just incase!

Wooley worm

I saw a all black wooley worm today .looks like a bad winter in sterling illnois!!!! Yeaaaa

Woolly caterpillar

I read that a young girls was hospitalized because they're poisonous. I keep crawling to the front of my door guessing they're trying to come into my house. Also finding them in my yard. I just found 4 of them. Two by my front door and two in my yard.

Winter is coming

Saw orange in middle with black on both ends today, looking like. Mild winter but I predict rainy!

Woolly caterpillar

I saw one today as well, from Bowman, Quebec Canada, the orange was smaller than the black, so its going to be a harsh winter.

Rule of thumb?

In the early 1900’s it was legal for men to beat their wives, as long as they used a stick no bigger than their thumb... Now you know, and knowing is half of the battle... (Yes part of my comment is from the movie, Boondock Saints). I couldn’t resist.

Woolly bears

What does "rule of thumb," which goes back far more than the early 1900s, have to do with wooly bears? BTW, by the dawn of the 2oth Century and even earlier, such barbaric laws were being phased out. Now, if it was a rule of wooly bears . . .

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