As mountianfolk, we’ve always looked to the natural world around us to provide insight to the future — whether it was examining the heavens in order to determine when was the best time to plant the garden or eyeballing the colors of a setting sun to determine the following day’s forecast, our ancestors have given us a long and rich heritage of gleaming wisdom from nature.
If you grew up in the mountains, you’ve undoubtedly heard at some point or another an older person talking about what the coming winter would be like based upon a woolly worm.
From rural New England to the Deep South, “woolly bears” (as the d*** Yankees call them!) or “wooly worms” (as we know them, here in God’s country!) have been helping folks foretell the coming winter — or at least attempt to — for generations.
But what exactly do the colors of these tiger moth caterpillars actually mean and perhaps even more importantly, do they even work?
According to folklore, the amount of black on the woolly worm in autumn varies proportionately with the severity of the coming winter in the locality where the caterpillar is found. The longer the woolly bear’s black bands, the longer, colder, snowier, and more severe the winter will be. Similarly, the wider the middle brown band is associated with a milder upcoming winter. The position of the longest dark bands supposedly indicates which part of winter will be coldest or hardest. If the head end of the caterpillar is dark, the beginning of winter will be severe. If the tail end is dark, the end of winter will be cold. In addition, the woolly bear caterpillar has 13 segments to its body, which traditional forecasters say correspond to the 13 weeks of winter.
The belief dates back to colonial times and as is the case with most folklore, there are two other versions to this story. The first one says that the woolly bear caterpillar’s coat will indicate the upcoming winter’s severity. So, if its coat is very woolly, it will be a cold winter. The final version deals with the woolly bear caterpillar’s direction of travel of the worms. It is said that woolly bear’s crawling in a southerly direction are trying to escape the cold winter conditions of the north. On the other hand, woolly bear’s crawling on a northward path would indicate a mild winter.
The popularity of the woolly bear caterpillar has resulted in several festivals honoring them. Since 1973, the residents of Vermilion, Ohio, have held an annual “Woolly Bear Festival”. Also, every 3rd weekend in October the annual Woolly Worm Festival is held in Banner Elk, North Carolina.
Though National Weather Service officials dispute the notion that wolly worms can accurately predict upcoming winters, stating, “The woolly bear caterpillar’s coloring is based on how long [the] caterpillar has been feeding, its age, and species…”, many individuals continue to believe in this ancient piece of American folklore.
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