News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mike Lunsford

November 24, 2013

MIKE LUNSFORD: Inching on toward a cold winter?

I’m not ready for snow and ice and the daggers of a north wind, but I have finally accepted the fact that winter is nearly here.

For that reason, I was in my barn one day last week, shelving a few flower pots that I had just extricated from the clutches of frost-bitten petunias that were soon to join their faded friends on the compost pile.

I had to move a bale of straw to get to one of the shelves, and as I hiked it on top of another nearby, I noticed five or six black-and-brown wooly worms curled up in the vacated space.

We don’t keep as much straw as we used to, not even bothering with tossing it into the loft anymore.

We no longer have a horse, as we did when we first moved to our place, and our kids gave up rabbits long ago.

I keep the bales handy for the occasional lawn seeding or for a place on which to sit pumpkins and Indian corn for fall decorations, and a little more for sprucing up a winter box for our old cat, Max.

I was more than content that the worms found a warm place to bed down until spring, and I don’t intend to move the straw again until I get back out into the yard come March.

We have seen a bumper crop of woolies this fall, peak season coming about a month ago, as Joanie and I still walked in shirt sleeves and in warm sunshine with a bit of wind.

But like a former friend giving us the cold shoulder, the weather has turned on us now, and since the clocks have betrayed us as well, we walk in darkness and cold more often than not. Even the wooly worms have enough sense to avoid doing that.

By the time I made a return trip to the barn, this time with a rake and a shovel I’d used in transplanting a few mums from plastic to earth, I noticed the worms were gone, inched off, I suppose, to another secret spot, probably just a bale or two away. They are welcome to stay as long as they want.

Had I paid much attention to the worms, they might have been able to — at least according to the old-timers I know — tell me what kind of weather we are going to have this winter. No, I don’t store a bottle of corn liquor in the barn with my tools; they don’t speak to me.

I would have simply checked to see how black the worms were, for it’s commonly believed that the more black bands on the worms, the more snow and cold weather we’ll see.

I have always tended to hedge my bets on the side of science when it comes to weather predictions. Besides, I can’t say that I have seen any hornets’ nests this fall to test another popular cold weather theory, nor have I cut into any persimmons to assay yet another. But I have always believed that science can fit hand-in-glove with some folklore, so as far as wooly worms go, I’ve gone in search of answers.

The worm in question is actually a wooly bear caterpillar (also called a “back-ended bear”). As the larval form of Pyrrharctia isabella (the Isabella tiger moth), we see them most often in mid-fall after they have left their food supply — typically dandelions, nettles and plantain — to search for cozy, dark spots to sleep for the winter. Those beds may come in the form of leaves or mulch, tree bark or a seam under a rock, and in my caterpillars’ case, between two bales of straw next to a grumpy old cat’s bed.

The wooly bear — “wooly worm” is considered a term that originated in the southern part of the country — has 13 distinct segments. In fact, folklorists claim those segments match perfectly with the 13 weeks of the winter season, and that the larvae can “tell us” whether we’ll have early cold weather or whether we had better keep the snow shovels handy for those near-springtime blizzards.

Some believers claim that even the directions we see the worms headed in late fall are predictors: If they are headed north to south, you’d better lay an extra blanket on the bed; they’re fleeing cold arctic air.

Another popular wooly bear theory is based on the “wooliness” of the larvae’s “coats.” If it is particularly thick, that, too, is an indicator of a cold, cold winter. Short of keeping last year’s caterpillars in the freezer, I’m not quite sure how we’re supposed to know the current crop is sporting heavier-than-usual coats though.

Rather than simply speculate, I went to a scientist to get an opinion. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather forecaster Jeff Boyne obliged.

“I am not sure whether I would consider myself as an expert on the subject,” Boyne said. “I just kept hearing about this over the years and wanted to write something about it. Some weather folklore does have some scientific basis to it, but this one just does not have any scientific fact. From what I have read about the woolly bear, much of the colorations that we are seeing are related to different species or age. Some species will turn more brown as they grow.”

A study done in 1948 by C.H. Curran, Ph.D., curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, pretty well backs Boyne’s science. Curran collected wooly bears for eight years, carefully measuring and weighing and observing them, and his conclusions were about the same: Caterpillars really don’t predict much of anything.

It’s most interesting to me to know that the black-and-brown caterpillars that are sleeping amidst the dust and rust of my barn will be moths next spring. As far as moths go, the Isabella tiger moth is not particularly large or colorful. They’ll wake up when the weather begins to warm a bit, spin peach-fuzzed cocoons and, a few weeks later, enter adulthood like we all eventually have to do.

My wife told me the other morning, as I walked my unshaven face and tossed salad hair past her to the bathroom, that she was happy that she hadn’t had to wake me up the night before to catch a snake that had found its way from our garage into the hallway. She scooped the little guy up — a frightened garter just looking for a dark, warm place to snooze — and deposited him in the woods.

“I heard that finding snakes in the late fall is supposed to be a sign of a warm winter,” she told me.

Here I go again …

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