We’re going on a (woolly) bear hunt

What makes for drama in my home? An open Tupperware container, a distraught preschooler, and an MIA woolly bear caterpillar named Sal. Rising action? The discovery of the caterpillar’s absence from a second-story bedroom, followed several hours later by resolution: an unexpected Sal sitting in the first-floor living room, where my husband and I were recovering from the day’s hysteria.

In the weeks following the Sal adventure, I have been noticing woolly bear caterpillars everywhere. And I’m not alone. In a recent posting from the North Branch Nature Center entitled “Why So Many Woolly Bears?,” blogger Larry Clarfeld expounds on the large number of woolly bears in Vermont, citing reports that woolly bear numbers climax about every ten years. Clarfeld also explains that woolly bears are more visible in the fall because of their life cycle: in autumn, woolly bears, the larval (caterpillar) phase of the Isabella Tiger Moth, are out and about searching for suitable places to overwinter.

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Photo: hsu.edu

And speaking of winter, who hasn’t heard reports that woolly bear caterpillars can predict winter weather? According to the Farmer’s Almanac, in 1948 Dr. C. H. Curran, curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History, conducted a vaguely scientific study in an attempt to prove that a wide brown band on a woolly bear forecasts a mild winter, while a narrow brown band forecasts a severe winter. Most scientists dismiss the woolly bear’s status as weather forecaster, although there is a connection between the number of brown bands and the age of the caterpillar—a connection that might give you clues as to the previous winter.

Whatever the case, I am happy to say that Sal is safe and free. As for the dozens of woolly bears I swerve to avoid on my daily commute, the future is less certain. So drive carefully and mind your step. Woolly bear season has arrived.

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