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Woolly worms may have let me down

Lynn Beadle Black caterpillar
A sign of a cold winter? Some say caterpillar coloring can predict the season.
Signs of winter off the mark.

Groundhogs aren’t the only prognosticators. Another worthy weather forecaster of the animal kingdom is the woolly worm — that is until this year. 

As a kid my grandpa taught me that woolly worms could be great predictors of winter weather. The thicker the black bands on these fuzzy caterpillars the harsher the winter. If their coloring was mostly red, you could expect milder temperatures.  

It was one of many signs from nature that could signal a hard winter ahead. Right up there with an unusual abundance of acorns, the shape of the cotyledon inside a persimmon seed (fork = mild winter, spoon = lots of snow, knife = bitter cold that cuts like a knife), and the number of foggy mornings in August. 

At some point, most of these “signs” have let me down — particularly the foggy mornings in August. Nearly every August morning is foggy in my part of the world, and I’ve never observed any correlation between late summer fog and winter snow. I think this bit of weather folklore may have been made up to give young children a glimmer of hope as they stared down another long school year. 

But I could always count on the woolly worms, also known as woolly bear caterpillars, for an accurate winter forecast. 

I remember the first time I found an almost solid black woolly worm. I was in the 8th grade. We accrued so many snow days that winter, the school year was extended into June to make up for missed classroom instruction. 

The winter of 2014/2015 brought lots of snow. I remember that year clearly thanks in large part to my husband’s brilliant idea to convert the previous summer’s kiddie pool into a sled for our toddlers. They used the pool/sled a lot that year. The woolly worms had predicted the snow, but I don’t think anyone could have anticipated that particular act of resourcefulness. 

In years where the woolly worms were mostly red or orange, the winters have been mild. I’ve found mostly red caterpillars prior to the past two fairly warm winters. 

So, this fall when I observed no less than three mostly black woolly worms, I just knew we were in for a hard winter with lots of snow. Even as meteorologists predicted a La Nina pattern would bring warmer winter weather to the southern U.S., I had faith that frigid temperatures were in store.  

But here we are at the start of February with no snow to speak of and temperatures that have been just average. There’s been talk of a looming polar vortex for weeks, but as I write, that’s yet to materialize. The daffodils in my flower beds are starting to bloom. 

Sure, there’s still a lot of winter left, but I’m growing worried that the woolly worms may have let me down.  

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