Who Knew?: Woolly worms: Cute, but can we trust them?
by Lucie R. Willsie
Dec 16, 2012 | 506 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Most woolly worms are wrong.

At least, that’s what the bottom line research seems to report.

But don’t tell them. They’re really kinda cute and I would hate to hurt their feelings.

But maybe these little tykes are pulling the wool — wool, get it — over our eyes and deliberately lying or are just being stupidly arrogant.

I just can’t figure it out.

I shouldn’t really blame them, however. It’s not really their fault. They are cute. They’re probably just victims of their environments. And nobody else can quite figure it out either. Not decisively so, at any rate.

As I said, they are kinda cute, I must say, in their fuzzy wuzzy sort of way. They look comfy and cozy, despite the fact they are insects.

And besides, the woolly worm (also known as the woolly bear caterpillar) truly is unevolved. They are just one step on the way to becoming an Isabella tiger moth, officially named Pyrrharctia Isabella.

Actually, I can’t really — or at least shouldn’t — blame the woolly worm at all. After all, they didn’t come up with the ridiculous theory that they can predict the weather.

Heck, most of the weathermen on the TV news can’t predict it either, with all their radar and computers. Why should a poor little ole woolly worm be saddled with this overwhelming task?

Apparently, there are similar but somewhat different explanations as to how the woolly worm does its thing.

Some folks believe that just by seeing woolly worms out and about means it will be a “bad” winter.

Another theory is that the 13 bands the woolly worm carries correspond to the 13 weeks of winter. Each band corresponds to a week of winter, from head first to toe last. And, depending on the color of each band — usually black to a lighter brownish, reddish amber band — it foretells how severe the winter weather will be that week. Black means a harsh, snowy winter; lighter bands a milder, warmer winter.

However, I also have read in my research that woolly worms typically are black on both ends and brownish in the middle as a normal coloring sequence. So, wouldn’t the predictions always be the same then? Just wondering.

I further read that it’s not just the color, but the width of the bands that is important. The narrower a band is, the more harsh the winter is supposedly going to be. Wider bands indicate milder winter weather.

Who knows? Even the “experts” apparently disagree, and so does the folklore.

But as for this year’s predictions, “Lickety Split,” the name of the woolly who beat out all the other woollies in a “race” at the 35th annual Woolly Worm Festival in Banner Elk, N.C., in October, got the honor of being the woolly to “accurately” predict this year’s coming winter forecast — cold and snowy.

Odd prediction for winter, don’t you think?

More specifically, the bands called for snow and below average temperatures for the first five weeks of winter. The next six weeks will be average to below normal, with unusual cold in the 12th week and more snow predicted for the final week. According to previous predictions, these woollies have been accurate around 84.5 percent of the time.

Supposedly, according to my research, back some 60 years ago, Dr. C.H. Curran, who had worked as a curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, tested the woolly worms’ predictions and found them to be accurate around 80 percent of the time.

Just as an aside, I want to know why Curran thought to test these chubby round little ones for weather predictions in the first place. I couldn’t find out anywhere I looked. This is very curious and I sure would like an answer.

Other scientists apparently didn’t get the same results as Curran although they have tried, apparently.

Most now debunk the woolly worms’ anecdotally reported abilities.

Varying conditions, such as food availability, temperature, the amount of water available, age and even what species — yep, there are various species to complicate the matter — dictate the colors and the thickness of the bands.

Hey, wait a minute! Wouldn’t these above conditions also be different if there is going to be a harsh or mild winter? Well then, maybe the fact that our woolly worms are affected by varying conditions lends credence to their abilities to predict winter weather.

What do you folks think?

So, in conclusion, as with most things, there are many other factors that will influence our winter weather this season. This year, there could be some complications from an El Niño, for just one example.

But the woolly worm doesn’t make it easy to believe him. It seems that this little, innocent-looking caterpillar is not so innocent after all. He’s two-faced. How can you trust a two-face, after all? First, he’s a caterpillar, then a larva and then a moth. Geez, even he can’t make up his own mind and stick with one thing. How can anyone possibly believe any predictions he would make?

But now, before I let you go, I must break here from my woolly extravaganza to thank a friend of mine, without whose prompting I wouldn’t have been writing about “woollies.” She thought it would be a fun topic for my column. You have her to blame or thank, whichever.

So thanks, Leba. I sure do appreciate the suggestion!

And, after all this research, there is only one thing I am for sure about ... and that is — I know I have spent way too much time of my life studying “woollies” — even though, yes, I do think they are kinda cute. And now I also know more than I ever wanted to know about them.

Thanks again, Leba!

Oh. And, by the way, none of these predictions start until Friday, Dec. 21, at 7:11 a.m., Eastern Standard Time, the first day of winter, also known as the winter solstice. That’s the day when the day is the shortest and the night is the longest of the year. Which, speaking of predictions, the winter solstice this year also is, as reported by some, the day the Mayan calendar ends.

I guess then we won’t need to care what winter brings this year after all. You see, at least if we’re all here to see it, I’m pretty sure I’ll be happy — no matter what the weather brings.