Autumn is in the air. The nights are cool and crisp, the days are comfortably mild with low dewpoints, and soon we will see the colors of the leaves begin to change. And there is one more thing we will see if we keep our eyes open. Look for the wooly bear caterpillar crossing the road or the sidewalk.
The woolly bear is a fuzzy little caterpillar that is seen in September and October looking for a place to hibernate for the winter. It seeks a protected place from wind and snow, perhaps below a home deck, and produces a cryoprotectant in its tiny body. Think of this as natural antifreeze. It keeps the wooly bear from freezing to death. Once it survives the winter, it spins a spring cocoon and emerges eventually as the Isabella Tiger Moth.
Besides the fact that wolly bear caterpillars are fuzzy and cool to see, there is a bit of weather folklore surrounding it. Old weather tales state that the width of the brown stripe on the wooly bear signifies the severity of the upcoming winter. Don't believe it for a minute. The width of the band on the caterpillar is more about its age than the upcoming winter. But it is still a fun bit of weather folklore.
The Isabella Tiger Moth emerges in the spring from the cocoon created by the Woolly Bear Caterpillar.
The little creature has inspired parties in the fall. The Woollybear Festival has been celebrated in Vermillion, Ohio since 1973. The Woolly Worm Festival in Banner Elk, North Carolina has been going strong since 1977. Another one takes place in Beattyville, Kentucky.
So keep a keen eye out for the fuzzy little guy that has inspired festivals and folklore. It won't help you predict the severity of the upcoming winter but it will remind you that the season is changing.