Discovering folklore of woolly bear caterpillars

Posted Feb. 26, 2010, at 7:42 p.m.

What’s fuzzy, an inch long, black on both ends, brown in the middle and crawls across snow in February?

Awww, guess.

Confused? So was the woolly bear caterpillar.

Last Saturday I was walking the dog on the snow-covered path through the hemlock stand at the tree farm. There in that vast white expanse was the rather conspicuous Little Woolly B.

When I saw it, I nearly tripped, for one does not expect to find a caterpillar in the snow. Not unless it is a man-made piece of earthmoving equipment. Not one that’s cold-footing it along the trail right toward you, albeit at only a fraction of an inch in height.

One might see a vole. I did last year and lost a boot trying to maneuver the new puppy away from it.

Squirrels? Check.

Deer? Yup.

But a caterpillar? A cute, fuzzy, wee caterpillar? Not so much.

I bent over and wondered what to do. Leaving it there many feet away from the nearest cover must mean sure death, I thought.

So I picked it up and walked back to an open patch of earth under a hemlock. The sun was warm on my head as I placed Little Woolly B atop a hillock of grass and twigs.

Kai, my dog, was sniffing about but couldn’t quite figure what I was doing. Meanwhile, the caterpillar unfurled from its protective ball and started checking out the new digs.

And I stood there, not wanting to leave Little Woolly B to the elements.

What was a caterpillar doing out and about this time of year? How could it survive? What would it eat? Would it get eaten? Would it freeze? Shouldn’t it be in a cocoon? Was there anything I could do?

Lots of questions and only a single answer: Leave it to nature.

Interfering humans don’t take that well. But I didn’t know how to raise a caterpillar, and I figured Little Woolly B probably did, even though one could question that given the circumstances.

With a final glance, Kai and I left.

The next day we returned as the clouds were spitting snow. I walked straight to the bare patch of earth to see if Little Woolly B had succumbed to the elements.

No sign of a lifeless carcass did I see.

Turns out I had little to worry about, for the woolly bear is built for winter.

My lone insect book had nothing to offer, but the Internet had much about the life of Pyrrharctia isabella. The adult is the Isabella tiger moth, which lays eggs that morph into the woolly bear larvae in the fall. That is why you see so many of the critters crawling in yards, paths and roads that time of year.

During winter they take caterpillar form and survive because they produce their own “antifreeze” that protects their cells from the cold.

When the weather warms — think about the last couple of weeks — they awaken and start eating, before going totally cocoon and becoming moths.

Obviously, Little Woolly B thought it was getting a jump on things.

If the whole chilling with antifreeze weren’t a big enough claim to fame, a bit of folklore persists about the woolly bear’s coloring.

According to The Old Farmer’s Almanac Web site, legend has it that a woolly bear can predict the coming winter weather: The wider the brown section on a woolly bear, the milder the winter.

Piffle, said science and its followers, who set out to prove the theory wrong by measuring bands and recording the weather for a few years in the 1940s.

But those scientific naysayers didn’t stop the rest of the world from rooting for the undercaterpillar. So much so that there are annual woolly bear festivals in several states, all of which lead to predicting winter’s weather.

Banner Elk, N.C., goes wacky for the “wee beasties” that Southerners refer to as woolly worms, www.woollyworm.com. The Woolly Worm race consists of woolly bears — named everything from “Patsy Climb” to “Merryweather” — climbing a piece of string. The winning worm has its color bands measured and is declared the official winter forecasting agent.

The town also holds the “Woad Wace” and the Woolly Worm Ball, which would be a running contest and a dance, respectively. For people, not caterpillars.

Vermilion, Ohio, holds its own Woollybear Festival where everyone can dress up in a woolly bear costume, race woolly bears and also predict the weather. And Beattyville, Ky., has its own Woolly Worm Festival with even more caterpillar racing.

Who knew one little caterpillar could be the source of such fun?

www.janinepineo.com

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