Not a Bear. Not a worm. Not a meteorologist.

This week saw the official beginning of autumn on September 23, and the accompanying loss of productivity that results from

I sure hope you like pumpkin! photo credit: JeepersMedia via photopin cc
I sure hope you like pumpkin! photo credit: JeepersMedia via photopin cc

an adorable Google doodle to mark it. I love this season, as the weather begins to cool, the leaves take on the rich hues of the season, and everything starts to smell (and taste) like pumpkin spice.

It’s been especially beautiful in my corner of the world this week with crisp clear mornings that shake off the chill and settle into pleasant sunny afternoons. And there’s a sense of urgency to soak up every bit of the beauty because before too long the jack-o-lanterns will rot on the front porch and we’ll all have had our fill of apples, raking, and, yes, maybe even those pumpkin-spiced lattes.

Then the long, dark, cold months of winter will settle in. According to some weather “experts” we Midwesterners should indeed be bracing for a long, dark, cold, winter. And by “experts,” of course, I mean the woolly worms.

If you’re in another part of the US you may call these critters “wooly bear” or “fuzzy bear” caterpillars even though they are maybe two inches long and not generally (ever) classified as bears. As they are also not technically worms, I won’t argue with you, but this is my blog post so I’ll be referring to them as “wooly worms.” Because that’s what they’re called.photo credit: mattnis via photopin cc
If you’re in another part of the US you may call these critters “woolly bear” or “fuzzy bear” caterpillars even though they are maybe two inches long and not generally (ever) classified as bears. As they are also not technically worms, I won’t argue with you, but this is my blog post so I’ll be referring to them as “woolly worms.” Because that’s what they’re called.photo credit: mattnis via photopin cc

That these fuzzy little critters can predict the degree of severity of the coming winter has been known since at least as early as the 1600’s, but it wasn’t until the fall of 1948 that the phenomenon was (kind of) formally studied. This was the year Dr. Howard Curran, then curator of entomology at the American Museum of Natural History took some friends, including a New York Herald Tribune reporter, their wives, and presumably a picnic with a few bottles of pumpkin spice ale and headed to Bear Mountain State Park to examine the woolly worms.

What he hoped to test was the folklore assertion that the wider the orange/brown band in the middle of the woolly worm’s stripe pattern, the milder the winter, and that collecting and examining woolly worms would be a fun way to spend a day with Mrs. Curran and their friends. Evidence suggests that the latter assertion is absolutely true because the group continued their “research” tradition for the next eight years.

As to whether or not the woolly worm can accurately predict the severity of the coming winter, well, Curran’s evidence did seem to jive with the old wives tale and his results were published in the New York Herald Tribune, sparking renewed interest in the tale that has led to woolly worm festivals and celebrations in Ohio, North Carolina, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and even recently in Lion’s Head, Ontario, which just goes to show you that searching out woolly worms really is a fun way to spend a Saturday.

Still, Dr. Curran was careful to note that his sample sizes were small, his technique imprecise, and his results, though delightful, were somewhat suspicious. More recent studies have shown that there really isn’t a correlation between the coloration of woolly worms and the weather pattern of the coming winter.

Definitely not a bear. Rod Allday [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
One of 260 species of Tiger Moth. Definitely not a bear. Rod Allday [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The stripes instead tell us something of the woolly worm’s age, how long it’s been eating, and which of 260 species of tiger moth (the grown up version of the woolly worm) it might belong to. Entomologists do admit that given all that, the coloration may tell us something about the weather patterns of the previous winter, but then even meteorologists can tell us that information with at least some degree of accuracy, so it really isn’t that impressive.

I wonder which side the woolly worms are nestled on. photo credit: Sister72 via photopin cc
I wonder which side the woolly worms are nestled on. photo credit: Sister72 via photopin cc

Still, I admit that on a recent family bike ride, we noted the coloration of the droves of woolly worms that crossed the bike path. To our untrained eyes, they seemed to indicate a harsh winter ahead. And a lot of meteorologists agree, citing such prediction tools as statistical analysis and computer generated weather models. Seems to me like it would be easier just to grab a few friends and head out on the bike trail or take a picnic up to Bear Mountain and enjoy a nice slice of pumpkin pie, if for no other reason than to soak up the beauty of these autumn days.

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