I took advantage last week of one of the recent warmer days and was out doing a bit of target practicing. Peering through my scope at my target 100 yards away, I saw a wooly bear crawling along the edge of the target backer. It was apparently oblivious to the .243 bullets zipping by it mere inches away. Several more shots told me that it did not care either.
I studied the wooly bear through my scope and had it in my crosshairs a couple of times, but I decided not to pull the trigger. They are kind of fun to watch and its presence inspired the age old question, “What will the winter be like this year?”
I have written about wooly bears before and it generated a lot of interest and favorable comments, so here we go again. Similar to Punxsutawney Phil predicting the coming of spring, the woolly bear caterpillar is said to be able to predict the winter ahead. Woolly bears are common in autumn in Nebraska, inching their way across roads, sidewalks, porch rails, and in this case, target holders.
The wooly bear typically has dark brown to black color at each end of its body, and a rusty light brown to orange color in the middle. The width of the rusty brown/orange segment in the middle is where the meteorology comparison comes into play. Legend has it that the wider the middle band is, the worse the winter will be. A narrower middle band is thought to mean a milder winter is coming. What do you think?
I’m not sure how long the folklore associated with the wooly bear has been recited, but back in the fall of 1948, Dr. C. H. Curran, curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, decided to do a bit of research on the matter. 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 continued his observations over the next eight years and attempted to prove a scientifically explained link to the folklore. The resulting publicity made the woolly bear the most recognizable caterpillar in North America.
The truth of the matter is that the mid-section of the woolly bear can vary for several reasons. The age of the caterpillar is one factor. The older the caterpillar, the more reddish-brown it tends to be. Rainfall also affects the coloration. The black bands grow wider in wet weather. Biologists do not feel this has any bearing on the weather to come.
It's fun to study woolly bears even if you're not trying to predict the weather. If you pick one up, it will curl up in a ball and play dead. The hairs don't sting, but they do serve as protection. Would-be predators avoid woolly bears because a mouthful of bristles is not very appealing. Black and orange are also warning colors that serve as a "do not touch" sign. Monarch butterflies have the same colors and nature has made them poisonous to eat.
Woolly bears are moving about with a purpose this time of the year. They are looking for a sheltered place to spend the winter. Unlike other species of moths and butterflies, wooly bears overwinter as adults under logs, leaves, under your patio deck, any place that can shield them from direct wind and snow.
They can survive below-freezing temperatures because they make their own antifreeze. They produce a substance called cryoprotectant that lowers the lethal freezing point of their bodies. Other creatures that survive cold via cryoprotectants include frogs and toads.
Next spring, on one of the first warm days, woolly bears will become active again and start eating…and eating…and eating some more. When they have built up their energy reserve they make a cocoon. After about a month, the adult will make its debut as an Isabella Tiger Moth.
As for predicting the winter, wooly bears aren’t that reliable. Keep an eye out for these colorful caterpillars. They will be out of sight soon, ready for whatever winter weather is to come, but as far as predicting what that will be…better stick to the Farmer’s Almanac. Incidentally, that publication says it will be colder than last winter, but not too bad. More snow is forecast for this winter than last.