What’s “woolly” Cool About the Caterpillars Crossing the Road?
Have you noticed those hairy caterpillars crossing roads recently and wondered, what are they and why are they crossing the road?
These hairy caterpillars are known as woolly bear caterpillars and average to be about 2 inches in length and consist of rust-and-black bands.
Well it’s that time of year! Like many species, woolly bears are inching across the road or your driveway to locate a spot to overwinter. But to survive winters, Woolly Bears have a unique adaptation: they spend most of their lives frozen! They are found in places like Canada and Greenland, and they survive here by freezing for the winter. That’s right! Woolly’s have a type of an antifreeze in their blood and they slow their hearts down enough that they almost stop pumping. But in order to survive in these extremes, the caterpillar needs to gather enough food by eating leaf litter during the autumn months. Then these caterpillars look for places under rocks, rotting logs and the existing leaf litter to freeze; one of many reasons not to rake your leaves this fall! (For more reasons not to rake the lawn, check out our blog “Leave the Leaves”).
In the spring, these guys emerge again and “defrost”. While they look warm and cozy, they actually need to bask in order to grow enough to enter chrysalis and they spend a lot of their time on roads and rocks soaking up the sun.
Also, while these insects appear to look almost cuddly soft and woolly, as the name suggests, this is a species you’re not going to want to touch! Woolly bears have tiny barbs (stinging hairs used as a common defense mechanism to dissuade predators) at the tips of their coat that can break off and irritate your skin, thus inducing a rash.
Another interesting thing about the species, is that they live longer than any other caterpillar; up to 14 years, but once they reach adulthood/turn into a moth, they only live 24 hours in order to lay eggs, before they die.
Fun fact! The woolly bear is the larval stage of the Isabella Tiger Moth.
There are many myths surrounding our woolly friends that seem to appear everywhere in the fall, whether you see them taking over roadways, your lawns, the trees in your yard or even your front doorstep. If you ask around you may hear funny stories; such as that these furry friends predict the severity of upcoming winters through the amount of black ‘fur’ they have or even their direction of travel. This myth came about in 1948 from a small study completed by Dr. Howard Curran in which he traveled (with reporters I may add) to Bear Mountain, New York, where he counted the bands on a mere 15 specimens and made a prediction about the upcoming winter which happened to go “1948-style viral” and was picked up by New York Herald Tribune and later by national press.
The fact of the matter is that these cute critters do not actually predict the weather for the upcoming winter. The changes and differences in their coat are really an indicator of the previous season’s growth, their age, and how well they have been feeding. The better the season, the more the caterpillars will grow, which then leads to narrower rust-coloured banding and more black throughout their body!
Are you a lover of the woolly bear? Then check out a woolly bear festival near you!
- Vermilion, Ohio, in October, begun in 1973, the woolly bear Festival features woolly bear costume contests for children and pets and the woolly bear 500 caterpillar races.
- Banner Elk, North Carolina, begun in 1977, features crafts, food, and races. The winning woolly bear predicts the winter weather for the following winter.
- Beattyville, Kentucky, begun 1987, called the Woolly Worm Festival, features food, vendors, live music, and a Woolly Worm Race in which people race the woolly bear caterpillar up vertical strings.
- Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, in early fall, begun in 1997, featuring crafts for kids, food, games, a pet parade, and a Weather Prognostication Ceremony.
- Oil City, Pennsylvania, Woolly Bear Jamboree, begun in 2008, features Oil Valley Vick to predict the winter weather. Though some may have hoped he could someday draw a crowd similar to Punxsutawney Phil, Oil Valley Vick made his first and only prognostication in 2008.
- Lion’s Head, Ontario, it has been held for two years now to rival Wiarton Willie.
- Little Valley, New York has held a Woolly Bear Weekend since 2012.
WE hope to hold a Woolly Bear Bonanza in 2020! If you’d like to participate or have woolly cool ideas, contact us at The Land Between firstname.lastname@example.org