by Carly Brown
A few weeks ago I tied my laces, donned my hat, and set off for a long run down Spear Street, from Burlington to Charlotte and back again. Partway through my run I saw it crossing the road without any signs of hurry, proudly displaying its black and rusty fur: the woolly bear (Pyrrharctia isabella). I immediately looked up to check for oncoming traffic, then dodged out into the road, lunged, and swiped the fuzzy caterpillar. Without breaking stride I carefully set it on the roadside it was moseying to. Some feet down the road I repeated my behavior. My mind clicked back to middle school when I learned that a long rusty stripe means a mild winter. Is that true? And what are woolly bears when they are not cute, furry, caterpillars? Never mind what passing cars must think about my woolly bear lunge.
The woolly bears that we see in the fall will overwinter as caterpillars under plant debris in the cold snow environment. In order to survive the winter chill, the caterpillars produce a substance, called a cryoprotectant, which acts much like antifreeze. When spring begins to show its face, the caterpillars emerge from the leaf litter, begin to eat new plant growth, and then form a pupa to eventually emerge as the Isabella tiger. This moth is a relatively nondescript yellow-brown moth with several darker spots on its wings. Woolly bears have two generations per year. This means that the newly emerged moth lays its eggs, which hatch to complete the cycle through woolly bear and moth in the summer. The eggs that these new moths lay will hatch into the woolly bears that overwinter.
Do these fuzzy caterpillars tell us something about the winter to come? The legend is that the longer the rusty brown stripe on a woolly bear, the milder the winter. Conversely, a narrow rusty band predicts a harsher winter. There have been a few attempts to correlate the size of the stripe with winter conditions. One of the most well known studies was by biologist Charles Corran in the 1940s. For the first few years of his study, the prediction of the woolly bear was correct, but there was more than enough evidence to disprove the common myth in the years to follow. Some suggest that the length of the rusty stripe may actually tell us something about the harshness of the winter and spring that occurred the year before.
I know deep down that the woolly bear myth is just that—a myth. That doesn’t stop me from doing a few extra lunges to save a woolly bear or two and check out the length of the rusty stripe. Curious about what this winter will bring? I suggest that you join me in the woolly bear lunge.