Sunday, September 27, 2009

Woolly Bears

Woolly bear caterpillar on a dry cottonwood leaf.
This one was wriggling away from me into the grass.

My grandfather, who had a countryman's long wisdom of weather, told me how to predict the severity of the coming winter by observing the coloration of woolly bears. The dark bands on either end are the "cold spells" and the orange midsection indicates the length of a mid-winter thaw. Looking at this one, the cold temperatures will arrive on time, but there will be a long, mild, mid-winter, followed by a lingering chill in the spring.

I was thinking this weekend of autumn in New England: the deep burnished brilliance of maple leaves, sumac flaring red, the yellow canopy of beech leaves before the wind sweeps them down, glossy oak leaves clinging to the trees well into cold weather. And I was thinking of woolly bears. I picked them up on the dirt roads, stepped carefully around them as I gathered the last of the garden harvest and pulled up spent plants and vines.
Tramping about outdoors on this beautiful Sunday I was delighted to encounter two woollies. They aren't as common in the interior west as in other places I have lived.

The late naturalist, Edwin Way Teale, is one of my favorite writers who has stood the test of passing years and changes of place. With his diminutive wife, Nellie, Mr. Teale planned four journeys through America, plotting his routes carefully months in advance. From his journals and photographs of these treks came four books: North with the Spring; Journey into Summer; Autumn Across America; Wandering Through Winter. Each year I bring out the one which suits the current season. Following is a favorite passage from Autumn Across America.
"We descended that afternoon to autumn movements of Lilliputian dimensions [and] a humble form of seasonal travel began to absorb our attention as we drove north. We saw, as we had seen for days, wandering woolly bear caterpillars crossing the pavement. Some were going from left to right and some from right to left. One had just reached the center stripe when the whirlwind of two passing cars sent it spinning around and around. Frequently we saw other woolly bears rolled sideways for a dozen feet or more by the hurricane gale of a speeding car. Always these travelers righted themselves and continued their crawling, a prey to autumn wanderlust. This autumn travel of theirs, a feature of completed growth, is in its way a definite migration. It is a movement to winter hibernating quarters. Before entering the long months of immobility the caterpillars set out to see the world. Each woolly bear, for a time, becomes an insect Ulysses. Its autumn days are spent adventuring far, and about highways, daring much. As we zigzagged now and then to miss these wanderers in their perilous travels, we began speculating on the answers they would give us if we questioned them in what the French scientist, J. Henri Fabre, called "the language of experiment." Later on, in the northwest and back home along the Atlantic coast, over several thousand miles of roads, a hundred times and more, we stopped to cross-examine with experiments the journeying woolly bears.
I picked them up and set them down facing in the opposite direction. They reversed themselves and started off across the concrete of the highway in the same direction as before. I watched them regain their feet, without any loss of sense of direction, after being bowled over by the wind of a passing car. I whirled them around and around in my hand and set them down. They headed away as before. I shook them up in a brown paper bag and dumped them out. The result was the same. I picked up one woolly bear going in one direction and another going in the opposite direction and put them down, curled up into round pincushions, on the center stripe of the highway. They waited a minute or two, then uncurled and began walking away from each other, each stubbornly holding to its original direction of movement. Whatever the explanation of their ability, these humble wanderers---have within their pinhead brains or primitive nervous systems a sense of orientation that enables them to hold to their course once they start to cross the road. "
Most US libraries have copies of Teale's works. Some are available used through Amazon or Alibris. Most of mine have come from second-hand book shops. I have been able to replace several I bought in small paperback editions with sturdier hardcovers located over the years.


  1. We used to get black woolly caterpillars, years ago when our neighbors had a weeping willow in their front yard and we had a pussy-willow in our back yard. You could almost hear then munching from next door to us, then marching across the driveway. They stripped the willows clean

  2. I've not known these to be mass destroyers of trees. In New England there were invasions of "tent caterpillars"---nasty dark things that covered trees with their webs, ate off foliage, dripped down on ones' head when getting anywhere near a tree. My Dad would make a torch with a rag wrapped round a stick and then dipped in kerosene to burn them out.
    Sometime in the mid-50's the county began spraying the things. We were glad at the time to have them gone, but I look back and wonder if it was DDT.
    I was just over at your blog, wondering about the ID of the big bird.

  3. We have those tent caterpillars over here too - not sure if they're exactly the same beastie, but they will cover a tree. As for Woolly Bears, I've just looked them up and they are the babies of the Isabella Tiger Moth. The adult images looked fairly variable - is that usual?

    I am looking forward to Edwin Way Teale arriving in my enamel Bread box . . . He sounds my sorta guy . . .

  4. Two posts! ... how did I nearly miss the truck one? Great story ...does J know his stressed face is on your blog lol My late husband had a car tyre blow out on a motorway and for years could not believe that he wasn't killed ..he said that he just managed to steer correctly by a sort of instinct.

    Some years back London was invaded by Woolly Bears ...they covered trees in city areas and dropped off the branches of trees as commuters passed by. They would land inside shirts and blouses and cause severe rashes. At first they thought they were dangerous and there was a bit of a panic.

    Interesting country belief about the weather and the stripe many are true.