Growing up in the in Northeast U.S., my neighborhood friends and I always looked forward to fall, mostly because of Halloween and our pillowcases heavy with candy. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, we’d meet up outdoors after school, shuffling through the growing piles of leaves we helped rake up and trying to settle upon what costume we’d adopt this year and how we ere going to make it. If we happened to spot a wooly bear caterpillar, we’d spend and hour or so with the little fella trying to decipher whether the coming winter would be mild or severe, based upon the relative size of its black and rust stripes. We never could agree on which color was the significant predictor, or how a fuzzy, inch long creeping critter might actually know what the season would bring. Today I stumbled upon an article from the venerable Old Farmers Almanac, which made everything clear at last.
In the fall of 1948, Dr. C. H. Curran, curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, made up his mind to figure out scientifically, once and for all, whether the wooly bear legend was fact or fiction. Over the course of eight years, he collected caterpillars from New York’s Bear Mountain, and counted the number of rust-colored segments each one had, compiling the data into records of the average number that occurred each year. He used the data to forecast weather for the coming winter. If the central rusty band comprised a third or more of the caterpillar body , folklore held, and Dr. Curran predicted, that winter would be mild. Conversely, if the black bands at each end predominated, severe weather was due.
What did Dr. Curran discover? Well, his results suggested that there was indeed some merit to the folk belief! Huzzah!
As a scientist, he was careful to emphasize that his samples were too small to prove the caterpillar’s forecasting prowess. But he founded The Original Society of the Friends of the Woolly Bear, which each year visited Bear Mountain to check them out. Thirty years following the society’s final excursion, the park’s nature center took over the annual wooly bear count and predictions, without guaranteeing accuracy.
They can’t be any worse than the forecasters on tv, right?
On a side note, I try to avoid direct contact with such creatures as insects, amphibians, and reptiles, but the wooly bear is the one exception. I have no problem with gently picking them up to hold for a few moments before releasing them to resume their search for the perfect shelter in which to overwinter. can’t wait to spot the first one this fall….