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The Woolly Worm and Winter Forecasting

Can the Woolly Worm accurately predict winter weather? Meteorologist Josh Fitzpatrick has the interesting details!

The exit of summer always ushers in fall familiarities - apple cider, pumpkins, changing landscapes and the site of nature's most recognizable caterpillar: the Woolly Worm.  Some folks call it the Woolly Bear.

Kathy from Ironton sent me a common question this time of year, she wrote: "Josh, I just came in from outside and I saw one of those woolly worms crawling across my driveway.  I've always heard the color of them could predict what kind of winter we might have.  It was very black on both ends with a small band of brown in the middle.  From your perspective, what does this mean as far as what kind of winter we will have?  I know this is folklore, but I just had to ask!"

Here's what I found on this fun weather folklore. 

I think for the most part, people find these caterpillars cute, fuzzy and downright fun to watch as they inch their way across a sidewalk.  These harmless caterpillar's have enjoyed being the center of weather folklore for a very long time!  Like the groundhogs shadow, the woolly worms thirteen distinctive black and reddish-brown bands have become a rule of thumb in forecasting winter.

According to the Old Farmer's Almanac, the longer the middle brown band, the milder and shorter the coming winter; the shorter the brown band, the longer and more severe winter will be.

For decades, people have taken this folklore to heart, even holding festivals - like the Woolly Bear Festival in Vermilion, Ohio and the Woolly Worm Festival in Banner Elk, N.C. to honor the caterpillar's knack for predicting the weather. But the myth is nothing more than that and holds little, if any scientific weight.

The truth behind the woolly worms/bear's band length actually has more to do with its age than with predicting the weather. As the caterpillar prepares to overwinter, it molts, becoming less black and more reddish-brown as it ages. Woolly worms overwinter from September to May and are commonly found along nature trails and wooded edges and crossing sidewalks and roadways seeking overwintering sites.

Woolly worms share winter predictions with some of nature's other critters, like honeybees and yellow jackets.  Folklore tells us honeybees will store honey in mass in preparation for a severe winter and yellow jackets will build nests either high in trees or in the ground depending on what the coming winter has in store.

It is true that insects and some animals can sence changes in weather and what might be in store for the seasons ahead.  Bottom line, long range forecasting isn't easy but there are some signs this winter may bring more snow and cold like last year.  Time will tell...

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