Woolly bear caterpillars—also called woolly worms—have a reputation for being able to forecast the coming winter weather. If their rusty band is wide, then it will be a mild winter. The more black there is, the more severe the winter. Just how true is this weather lore? Learn more about this legendary caterpillar and how to “read” the worm!
The Woolly Worm Legend
First of all, the “woolly worm” is not a worm at all! It’s a caterpillar; specifically, the larva of the Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). Nonetheless, the name “worm” has stuck, at least in some parts of the United States. In others, such as New England and the Midwest, people tend to call them “woolly bears.” (Worm or not, at least we can all agree that they’re not bears!)
In terms of appearance, the caterpillar has 13 distinct segments of either rusty brown or black. Often, it is black on both ends with rust-colored segments in the middle, although it may sometimes be mostly black or mostly rust. (Note: All-black or all-white caterpillars are not woolly bears! They are simply different species and are not part of the woolly worm lore. So, if you spot an entirely black caterpillar, it isn’t forecasting an apocalyptic winter!)
According to legend:
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 one of the most recognizable caterpillars in North America (alongside the monarch caterpillar and tomato hornworm).
What Is a Woolly Bear Caterpillar?
The caterpillar that Dr. Curran studied, the banded woolly bear, is the larval form of Pyrrharctia isabella, the Isabella tiger moth.
- The Isabella is a beautiful winged creative with yellowish-orange and cream-colored wings spotted with black. It’s common from northern Mexico throughout the United States and across the southern third of Canada.
- The tiger moth’s immature larva, called the black-ended bear or the woolly bear (and, particularly in 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 woolly caterpillars are true ‘woolly bears’ though!
- If you find an all-black woolly caterpillar, don’t worry—this doesn’t mean that we’re in for a severe, endless winter! It’s just a caterpillar of a different species, and is not used for forecasting. The same is true for all-white woolly caterpillars.
- 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 Really 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 over forty years, Banner Elk, North Carolina, has held an annual “Woolly Worm Festival” in 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.”
How to “Read” the Woolly Worm
Weather is local so you need to read your own woolly worm.
Look for these fuzzy wuzzies in the fall. According to woolly worm watchers, there are two generations of worms each year. The first appear in June and July, and the second in September. The second generation worms are the “weather prophets.”
To find a woolly bear, start looking under leaves and logs! Some are just crossing the road. Once you spot a woolly worm inching its way along the ground or a road, you’ll see them everywhere! The caterpillars are most active during the day (not at night). After filling up on food—including violets, lambs quarter, and clover—their goal is to find a place to hide for the winter. Interestingly, the woolly worm overwinters as larva. Their entire body will enter a “frozen” state until May when it will emerge as the Isabella moth.
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. Remember:
If the rusty band is wide, then it will be a mild winter. The more black there is, the more severe the winter.
That’s it! Note that white, yellow, or other colors of fuzzy caterpillars are NOT the same type of woolly worm and are not used for weather forecasting. We’ll leave the weather-prognosticating “skills” to your own observation!
Speaking of Weather Predictions …
Did You Know: The 2021 Old Farmer’s Almanac is now available! The brand-new issue includes our famous 2021 Winter Weather Forecast.
Woolly Worm Video
In tribute to our fellow prognosticator, we made a woolly worm video …
Whether the predictive powers of the woolly worm are fact or folklore, we always enjoy the fun! Feel free to share your experience with the woolly worm in the comments below.