Woolly Bears

by Karen Weiland, Advanced Master Gardner

The following article was written by my fellow master gardener (Gold Level), Gwen Rinker.

woolly-bears“These fuzzy caterpillars are famous for crossing roads and your driveway in autumn and for their alleged ability to predict the weather.  As soon as the weather gets chilly you can usually see a woolly bear caterpillar, or two, scurrying across your walk or driveway.  They can move pretty fast for such a little critter – although it does have a lot of legs.

People have made winter weather predictions for years by looking at the woolly bears.  They predicted a cold winter if the woolly bears had wide black bands front and back and a narrow rusty-orange band in between.  If the black bands were narrow and the orange ban wide, they would swear we were going to have roses in December and a short mild winter.

This caterpillar is the larva of the Isabella Tiger Moth.  The moth is not a very pretty moth but rather has light tan or orange wings and a few black dots.  The species thrives in open areas, gardens, pastures and fields across North America, extending into the northern reaches of Canada and Alaska.

You probably don’t notice the caterpillars in the spring and summer, but they are there feeding on low vegetation, like dandelions, plantain, clover, weeds and some woody plants.

Come Fall it is time for the big sleep and if you see a woolly bear hustling across the sidewalk or driveway, it is looking for a nice cozy place under a woolly-bears-cocoonlog, in a wood pile or the bark of a tree where it will hibernate.  By lowering their metabolism and creating their own antifreeze, they can be covered with solid ice and wake up just fine in the spring thaw.  The adults will feed in early spring for a few weeks, then spin a little oval cocoon.  In another two weeks they emerge as fully formed adult moths.  After mating, the female lays her eggs on the vegetation her larvae will eat when they hatch in a few weeks and the cycle begins all over again.

Some stinging caterpillars, like the saddleback, have venom in their spines, but the woolly bear’s hairs may just be irritating to some people’s skin.

When you pick them up, they curl into a bristly little ball that earns them another common name, the hedgehog caterpillar.

The power of the woolly bear to predict winter harks back to settler days and some claim these fuzzy caterpillars have a 70 percent success rate.”

As always, Happy Gardening!

Do you love gardening and would you enjoy passing your knowledge onto other?  Receive training as a Master Gardener through the Extension office in your county.  As a Master Gardener you will improve your gardening skills, teach others, enhance your community and, most of all, you will have fun!!

More information about gardening and related subjects is available online at www.hort.purdue.edu/extension/garden_pubs  The Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service can be reached at 499-6334 in LaGrange Co., 636-2111 in Noble Co., 925-2562 in DeKalb Co. and 668-1000 in Steuben Co.