Woolly Worm Weather

Published on September 26, 2014
Written by Becky Rogers

Can woolly worms predict the weather?

Woolly worms are a tiger moth caterpillar. Legend has it that they can determine if the coming winter will be mild or harsh. Woolly worms, also known as woolly bears, have a black band at each end with a band of reddish brown in the middle. Folk wisdom states that if the brown bands on the woolly worms are narrow, the winter will be harsh. If the reddish-brown band is wide, the winter will be mild.

According to the wooly worms found in Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina in early fall of 2013, the area should experience a mild winter. While there is some folklore wisdom that holds water, such as: “Rain before 7, it will quit before 11,” but woolly worms? Not so much.

Tried and Tested

To test this theory in 1948, Dr. C. H. Curran, curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, took a ride up to Bear Mountain in New York to collect the prickly caterpillars. He continued his experiments for 10 years and formed The Original Society of the Friends of the Woolly Bear, with a bunch of friends looking for an excuse to leave town to go leaf-watching every fall.

As it turns out, the sampling the good doctor and his friends took each year was too small to give an accurate forecast. But, as it turns out, there is a connection between the band of reddish brown on the wooly worm and severe winter weather.

The number of brown hairs indicates the age of the caterpillar, which tells you how late it got started in the spring. So the problem is — the band reflects the severity of the winter from the previous year.

Southern Pride

In 1977, the town of Banner Elk, NC, started a Southern tradition called the Wooly Worm Festival, held each year to celebrate the colorful caterpillar. There’s a caterpillar race, and the mayor picks up a wooly worm and gives a prediction for the coming winter. You can bring your own worm or purchase one at the festival. The “Worm Wace Wegistration” starts about 9 a.m. and fills up quickly. There’s even a $1,000 cash prize for the fastest worm in the west.

This year’s festival is slated for October 18 and 19 in downtown Banner Elk. Go to the Wooly Worm Festival website (say that five times!) for more information, or call the Avery County Chamber of Commerce at 828-898-5605.

So, how do you predict the weather when woolly worms come out?