Thursday, October 1, 2015

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The wooly bear – the Tom Jolls of the animal kingdom

A few weeks ago in this column we discussed the hickory tussocks moth and its poisonous caterpillar. The general rule of thumb posed at the time was that you shouldn’t handle any hairy caterpillars.

Wooly bear caterpillars are cute and fuzzy — and safe to handle. (PHOTOS
An exception to that rule can be made, though, for the wooly bear, an abundant insect of the Niagara Frontier. The hairy little critter does not have any poisonous hairs and there’s a good chance that you or your child have picked up one of these cute, inviting insects. Without the defensive weapons that other moth larva might have, you will have noticed that the wooly bear curls up into a ball when handled or disturbed.

The wooly bear is especially noticeable in September and October when you will see many of them crawling across roads, driveways, sidewalks and other warm surfaces. When doing so, they are trying to find the warmest place to hibernate. Whereas many months will winter over as pupa in cocoons, most wooly bears do not. Instead, they curl up and freeze solid, become unthawed and lively again in the spring when they go about building cocoons. During the winter months, you might find them under items in or around your garage or the foundation of your home where they glean as much warmth and protection from predators as they can.

If there are two broods in a year, some caterpillars that were born early in the summer will spend the winter as pupae in small, light-brown cocoons made of their hairs. Those cocoons will blossom into the Isabella moth, which is a rather plain-looking yellow or cream colored month about an inch and a half long.

Some people believe that the more red wooly bear caterpillars have in the
middle, the milder winter will be.
The wooly bear caterpillar’s tell-tale banded appearance, which has black hairs at its ends and a wide reddish-brown band in the center, has led to much speculation about its magical ability to predict the severity of the coming winter. Old wives tales say that the wider the red band and the smaller the black bands, the less severe the winter will be.

It’s a silly belief, as no animal has such powers, but, nonetheless, a few scientists have tried to prove that wooly bears are good forecasters. The most famous of these studies was done by Dr. Curran of the American Museum of Natural History. He and his wife studied wooly bear band lengths for nine consecutive years beginning in 1948 and they predicted the severity of the winter as a cutesy article for the New York Herald Tribune.

In those years, the red bands were large, the forecast pleasant and the winters that followed were mild. That led many to believe the myths and the wooly bear became the most recognizable caterpillar in the country.

So, did that study actually prove that wooly bears knew what was coming?

Not so fast.

Numerous studies that followed showed that the middle band represented how old the caterpillar was and how close to building a cocoon it might be. If the previous winter was mild, the first brood of young hatched earlier in the year, so, come the fall, they were older and, in turn, their bands wider. So, the caterpillar’s coloration more likely indicates how mild or severe the previous winter was and not what the coming one will be like.

But, it still serves as good, folksy fun. If you spend any amount of time outside in the fall, you will encounter numerous wooly bears. Take a moment to admire the cute buggers and see if they really do have the ability to forecast the weather like a veritable Tom Jolls of the animal kingdom.

+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he hopes wooly bears will tell him that the winter will be mild, especially after the last one we had. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

From the 01 October 2015 East Niagara Post

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