Wooly Bears and weather predictions

From my earliest memories I recall my mother taking me on nature walks.

We lived on a farm, so fields, streams and wooded areas were all around us. Mom pointed out different species of wild flowers to me and helped me collect and press coloured leaves in autumn. And we were always on the lookout for wildlife from the smallest millipede to big, pale green luna moths.

The rocky shoreline of West Point, Sandbanks Provincial Park, Lake Ontario, where I found the Wooly Bear caterpillar.
The rocky shoreline of West Point, Sandbanks Provincial Park, Lake Ontario, where I found the Wooly Bear caterpillar.

The Wooly Bear caterpillar is a fuzzy, two-toned insect no more than an inch and a half long, but this little guy has a lot of responsibility. My mother as most of her generation observed things in nature that we now ignore.  Whenever I or Mom saw a Wooly Bear, we would carefully check the length of its bars – black at the head, rusty orange in the middle and black again at the rear. The latter two bars predicted the length and severity of the coming winter.

If the middle orange bar was followed by a black bar about the same length, the winter would be average. If the orange bar were shorter we were in for a mild winter. But if the black bar at the end was short, look out – we were in for rough weather and a late spring.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac even references the Wooly Bear as a weather predictor.

The proper name for the Wooly Bear is the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia Isabella). According to Wikipedia it can be found in many cold regions, including the Arctic. The Banded Woolly Bear larva emerges from the egg in the fall and overwinters in its caterpillar form, when it freezes solid.
I got a close look at a Wooly Bear caterpillar during a walk along the lakeshore this morning. He had a longish middle bar, with a shorter black barred tail end. I took a close-up photo of the caterpillar for reference. I’ll be sure to check back on it next March/April.
Wooly Bear caterpillar
Wooly Bear caterpillar. Note the short black band at the tail-end.

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