Ask Josh Fitzpatrick: Can the Woolly Worm Predict the Winter?

Meteorologist Josh Fitzpatrick answers the question can Woolly Worms accurately predict winter weather?

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 sent me a common question this time of year, she asks, "Josh, I just came in from outside and I saw one of those wolly worms crawling across my driveway.  I have always heard that the color of them could kinda predict what kind of winter we could 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!  Love your blogs:)" 

Kathy, thank you for the great question and comment.  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, the harmless caterpillar has enjoyed being at the center of weather folklore.  Like the groundhog's shadow, the woolly worms 13 distinctive black and reddish-brown banks 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 age than with predicting the weather. As the caterpillar prepares to overwinter, the caterpillar 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 that 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 since changes in weather and what might be in store for the seasons ahead. 

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