Monday, October 20, 2008

Woolly Prognosticaters: Winter is Coming

. . . Eventually. Right now on these crisp fall days it is hard to think of winter. The trees are beginning to turn: the hackberry is a luminous yellow-gold, the ashes are shades of gold, orange, and rust, and the maple leaves are changing in a downward progress to a bright orange. While the oaks are dropping a few leaves--and lots of acorns--they are still green for the most part. Occasional gusts of wind have scattered leaves across my front lawn. Temperatures have finally dropped to seasonal 60's during the day and low 40's at night, but this has truly been a magnificent fall.

Yet we know that winter is inevitable. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago during a very warm spell when I spotted this little guy clinging to the porch wall.

"Oh no," I thought, "he's black!" Why should I worry about his color? It's simple--around here anyone would tell you that the color of the common woolly worm is a sign of what type of winter we are going to have. A light colored woolly worm indicates a mild winter; darker colors signify varying degrees of a harsh, cold winter. A black woolly worm, obviously, is not a good sign!

I thought the belief in woolly worm prognostication might be a Midwest legend, but I discovered yesterday that it is more widespread. Woolly worm festivals are held throughout the United States, according to a news article by a local County Extension advisor. This advisor writes a weekly column in our local paper every Saturday, and it seems she anticipates every gardening and nature question I have: she was the one who identified and explained those pesky pirate bugs that appeared out of nowhere a few weeks ago as well as the origin of the equally pesky Asian Lady beetles. This week's column was all about woolly worms, saving me from having to do any other research for this post. (Thanks, Ms. Mason!)

I learned that "woolly bears," as they are also sometimes called, are actually the caterpillars of different species of tiger moths. In central Illinois, "the most common and most famous is the banded woolly bear with its bands of red and black hairs. " Woolly worms are actually present all summer long, but we don't usually notice them until fall. Often times a "herd" of them can be seen crossing the road en masse.

Question: Why did the woolly worm cross the road?

Answer: To find a warm place to spend the winter under leaves and bark.

No, that wasn't a joke; it's a scientific explanation. Unlike other butterflies or moths, the woolly worm spends the winter as a caterpillar; when spring comes, it feeds for a short time, then pupates, and emerges a few weeks later as a tiger moth.

I have no idea how the legend of the woolly worm as a weather predictor came about, but I did learn from this article that the color of the woolly worm has more to do with the severity of the past winter than the winter to come. As woolly worms age, they molt, becoming lighter in color. So in reality the black woolly worm I spotted above was probably just a youngster.

The problem in forming forecasts based on woolly worms is that you might spot caterpillars of different colors. A week or so after spotting my first black one I spotted this lighter orange one feasting in the garden. Since then I have seen only a few caterpillars, ranging in color from black to a light cream.

So how do you know which woolly worm to believe? If you live in central Illinois, you can tune to the local television station and get the "Woolly Worm Forecast." Weatherperson Judy Fraser gathers information from a number of area volunteer "woolly worm reporters" and bases her annual prediction on their sightings. This year's report found that 60% of local woolly worms were black or dark brown, 30% were white, and 10% were multi-colored. Her conclusion? Based on the high percentage of dark caterpillars, this winter will be "cold and snowy."

Of course, Judy depends on more scientific methods of weather predictions, but she did say that the woolly worm forecast has been 75% accurate in the past. This is not the only method she uses in long-range forecasts, though: another popular method is looking at persimmons. I don't remember this method as well, although I think it has something to do with the size and shape of the persimmon seeds.

As for me, since I don't have any persimmon trees, I'm going to have to depend on the woolly worms for my winter preparations. Right now I am going to enjoy this beautiful autumn weather for as long as it lasts, but I might just go out and buy a new snow shovel before the rush hits!


  1. I have never seen a woolly worm before, and although he's a catapillar I think the name 'woolly worm' is so much sweeter!!! Such a cute bug! Does it do much dammage in the garden?

    Nice to read you first thing on a Monday morning!! :)

  2. Goodmorning Rose,

    I have seen many of those wooly worms this fall. I don't ever remember what the forcast is with which colors etc. It was fun reading your post to remind me of what was predicted.

  3. You are lucky to have a good garden columnist write weekly articles. We don't have this in our paper and I miss it from when I lived in a big city. I have seen those wooly worms scurry across roads en masse and it is a funny sight. I thought they just liked the warm roads but even wildlife needs to cross (hence all the dead critters-poor things). Enjoy the day.

  4. Rose, I enjoyed your very enlightening blog this morning. I remember catching wooly worms as a kid and putting them on my arm to feel them tickle me. I certainly hope you are not in for a winter like last year.

  5. That's an interesting story about woolly worm forecasting. I remember I use to see this caterpillars but haven't in a long time.

    One way of determining how cold winter is going to be here is to observe how thick the fur is on horses and cows. If it's thick lookout! It could be a cold winter. Of course nothing compared to yours but still cold.

  6. Suburbia, These are the only kind of caterpillars I've ever really liked--they ARE cute! I don't think they do any damage to the garden, so they're just fun to watch.
    Glad you stopped by this morning; waiting to see what happens with your shopping trip:)

    Lisa, Some people get real technical with the woolly worm forecast--counting the segments, looking at the thickness of the coat, etc. I just know that a dark color isn't good! Of course, it kind of reminds me of Groundhog Day--winter is going to be cold, no matter what:)

    Tina, The Saturday paper usually has a small garden section, which I immediately turn to. We're lucky to be near the university, too, so there are often columns written by different experts on wildlife, native plants, etc. I didn't know either why the woolly worms crossed the road:)
    I was really hoping to join in on Veggie Update today--I am still going to do a late post whenever I get my darn computer back!

    Morning Glories, I used to be a "wormaphobic", but I always liked woolly worms, too. They're kind of cuddly:) I hope, too, we don't have a winter like last year!

  7. Beautiful photos, Rose, and a very interesting post! We've had heavy frost the past two nights, and -- gulp -- there's a *chance* of snow flurries here on Wednesday! Yes, that's a bit early, even for us, and if we get them, I'm sure they won't amount to anything,'re right. Winter is definitely bearing down on us. All the more reason to enjoy these lovely fall days.

  8. Rose, I nearly wrecked my bike on time trying not to run over wooly worms that were crossing a country road en masse. It's strane that they all decide to do it at once! They are cute and I wouldn't want to hurt one if I could avoid it.

  9. LOL, Rose, I wish our weather forecasters would gather up a few woolly worms. They are wrong so often I think they need some low tech weather devices like caterpillars or maybe just a window to look our of once in a while.

  10. had me totally and utterly gripped.....I love posts like fact I will read it again......

    All things considered I think your winter is probably going to be unpredictable hence the different coloured woolly worms......

    Tiger moths of course are very beautiful....I had several in the garden this year.........and I hasten to add I have seen a lot of black caterpillars and no brown ones.......

  11. Hi Rose,
    My kids always had a jar with a stick and a wooly worm caterpillar in it. They would have me poke the holes in the lid for air.The jar would be opened off and on all day, while they put grass in or other things for wooly to eat.Then we would let them go. It is one insect that I think children love.

  12. Rose,

    I like all the unscientific predictions...they are tremendously fun. I haven't noticed the wooly worms at all...must keep an eye for them. Now I am very curious about the colors they will sport. Fall has been so odd who knows what winter will be like here! I need to find a wooly worm to ask him/her!


  13. Susie, I've never heard this about looking at the fur or hide of a cow or horse, but it makes sense--they probably know more instinctively about the weather than we do:) No, I hope your winters in Mississippi aren't as cold as ours!

    Nancy, We haven't had a frost yet (fingers crossed), but I know it's only a matter of time. Yes, we must enjoy this beautiful autumn as long as we can!

    Joyce, I'm picturing you swerving on a bike trying to avoid the woolly worms:) I haven't seen that many this year, actually. Maybe I need to take a walk out in the country.

    Marnie, I was going to add that thought to my post, but didn't--I think the woolly worms are probably as accurate as the weather forecasters:)

    Cheryl, Glad you enjoyed the post! Woolly worms are one worm I've always been fond of. I think you could interpret them however you want, and the prediction would probably come true in some way. I mean, it's bound to be cold and snowy at some point this winter:)

    Balisha, My kids used to do that, too. I should look for some the next time my granddaughter comes out--she loves to catch lightning bugs and has been fascinated with all my praying mantises as well.

    Gail, As I said to Marnie, their predictions are probably as accurate as the weather forecasters' will be! I wonder if people in other parts of the country or in other countries have similar folklore.

  14. Rose ... this was a very cute post .. and the wooly worm predictions are probably true !
    I hold more store by them .. then the all mighty scientific forecasters ? LOL ...
    Thank heaven for snow blowers ! LOL

  15. Those woolly worms are cute, no matter the color! I misread post title though to be "woolly procrastinators" thinking it would get around to things we have to do before the snow flies, but have been putting off! Heh!

  16. Rose-You are not going to believe this. But after telling you this a.m. I hadn't seen a woolly worm in I don't know when I saw one today. I went out to my car to eat my lunch, looked up and here comes Mr. Woolly worm crawling out of one of my air conditioner vents. Now, how funny is that? What in the world was he doing in there in the first place?

    By the way, he was a blondie.

  17. Great woolly worm pics. I have been looking for them in my yard but have not seen any yet. Lovely flower photos also.

  18. I'm with garden faerie - I was wondering how woolly worms would procrastinate! LOL!
    Cute little fuzzy things. I remember putting them on my arms as a child too - just to feel the softness.
    Hope we don't have a harsh winter like last year.

  19. Hi Rose - I love this post because I have always loved the woolly bear! I have a feeling it's going to be a cold and snowy winter, I hope the woolly bears and I are both wrong though. The thought of shoveling snow, ugh!

  20. Wonders never cease, Rose. You are a wealth of information! I did not know any of this and am so happy to learn. I've seen woolly worms and wondered ... and now I know, dear friend. Thank you for all the effort in this post. (Though no frost on the pumpkins as yet, hauled out my socks and cleaning closets, doning woolies in preparation!)

  21. Dear Rose,
    Thank you for this post. I did not know about the Woolly Worm being that dependable! I would love to go to a Woolly Worm festival. I think I will search for one to attend next year. I love the idea of it.
    Your caterpillars and Autumn colors are so pretty.
    I too would just enjoy the day and buy a couple of pairs of silk long underwear....

  22. Rose, I enjoyed your post on the wooly worms. I always get a kick out of Judy trying to make a forecast by the diiferent sightings. The persimmon seeds eith look like forks or spoons. A fork means little snow and a spoon means lots of snow. Or at least that's what Judy says. :)

  23. I've only seen one WB here, it was black-brown-black; harsh start, mild middle, harsh ending to winter.

    This winter, I've decided to count the number of days of sunshine starting on the first official day of winter; it'll be my non-scientific experiment to see if I can back up my claim that after leaf-drop here in Zone 5, there's much less sunshine during the winter months vs. summer ones.

  24. Joy, I agree they're probably more dependable!

    Garden Faerie, LOL, I think I'm the only "woolly procrastinator" here!

    Susie, That's pretty funny; is it a warm place? Looks like you're going to have a mild winter:)

    IGW, Thanks, and thanks for dropping by! According to their prediction, you must have some dark ones in Iowa, too.

    Wendy, I've always loved these little fuzzy guys. Not much we can do about a bad winter, other than spend in Florida:)

    Cindy, I hope the snow doesn't come soon--I have too many bulbs to plant!

    Joey, I just got some pumpkins yesterday, so I haven't noticed any frost yet there:) Thanks for the compliment, but I just read a lot!

    Sherry, Thank you; it was fun writing this. Silk long underwear sounds very appealing:)

    Beckie, spoons and forks--of course! Thanks for reminding me. I wondered when I wrote this if people in other parts of the country were familiar or not with all these superstitions.

    TC, I'll be eager to hear the results of your experiment!

  25. Oh I love the idea of a woolly worm forecast :)

    They're known as woolly bears over here. It's the nickname I use for hubby's dressing gown too as it's brown, woolly and makes him look like a cuddly bear!

  26. Rose, Did you mean you're having trouble posting comments at Full Bloom? You need to create a username with them to post comments. If that wasn't the hangup, it sometimes takes a while for comments to appear, even if you press Reload like 114 times! At the same time, I get notified when anyone comments and I haven't seen yours... so don't know what the problem would be. I got your comment on blogger just fine.
    ~ Monica

  27. I read in Sunset Magazine (a west coast home and garden magazine) that there is no real correlation between winter temps and woolly caterpillar colors. Apparently the caterpillar changes colors as it ages, so each caterpillar will show the sign of both a mild and cold winter.

  28. Rose
    I saw your comment on Suburbia's blog about not participating in ABC Wednesday letter N because you had NO good ideas.

    Well *NO good ideas* would be perfect for the letter N.

    Bear((( )))

  29. The thought of a "herd" of wooly worms crossing the road just about doubled me over. I'll be smiling about that one all day. You should write a children's book with that idea in mind, Rose. Great post as usual. Thanks for the laughs.

  30. i did a post on my black is beautiful woolly worm, thanks for the info on what a winter we might have coming. yikes i'd better stock up on firewood.

  31. I did not know this about the woolly worm....I am not sure I am glad to know it now!!!I like to be surprised in the winter....or not!!!

  32. I did not know this about the woolly worm....I am not sure I am glad to know it now!!!I like to be surprised in the winter....or not!!!

  33. That's wonderful! I've never heard of woolly worms but I love the idea of a woolly worm weather forecaster. Just perfect. (And probably as likely to be right as our weather forecsaters are!)

  34. Thanks to everyone for your kind comments; this was a fun post to write. I've been a little under the weather the past few days, but I will try to visit everyone this week.

  35. I have never heard of wooly worms before.
    I love the photos. Especially the little lamb on the left!!!!!
    You always pack in so much of interest in your posts.


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