Woolly bear caterpillar

This woolly bear caterpillar’s rusty brown segment would seem to indicate relatively rough winter is coming — if one believes the woolly bear folklore.

Our editor, Jim Eckstrom, is always on the lookout for nature — even in the Olean Times Herald parking lot.

Leaving to run an errand Thursday, he saw a woolly bear caterpillar inching across our Norton Drive. Jim stopped to get a quick picture and then used a twig to get the woolly bear safely onto the grass.

The woolly bear, of course, has the reputation of being able to forecast the coming winter weather. As the Old Farmer’s Almanac notes, whether this is fact or folklore can up to the individual.

A woolly bear has 13 distinct segments of either rusty brown or black. The wider the rusty brown sections (or the more brown segments there are), the milder the coming winter will be. The more black there is, the more severe the winter. — or so the lore holds.

Back in the fall of 1948, Dr. C.H. Curran, curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, took his wife 40 miles north of the city to Bear Mountain State Park to look at woolly bear caterpillars.

Dr. Curran collected as many caterpillars as he could in a day, determined the average number of reddish-brown segments, and forecast the coming winter weather through a reporter friend at The New York Herald Tribune.

Dr. Curran’s experiment, which he continued over the next eight years, attempted to prove scientifically a weather rule of thumb that was as old as the hills around Bear Mountain. The Almanac notes that the resulting publicity made the woolly worm one of the most recognizable caterpillars in North America, alongside the monarch caterpillar and tomato hornworm.

Between 1948 and 1956, Dr. Curran’s average brown-segment counts ranged from 5.3 to 5.6 out of the 13-segment total, meaning that the brown band took up more than a good third of the woolly bear’s body. The corresponding winters were milder than average, and Dr. Curran concluded that the folklore has some merit and might — as he himself stressed, might — be true.

In any case, it’s fun to try and use the woolly bear as an indicator of the severity of the coming winter.

As for Jim’s woolly bear, it seems the black segments outweigh the rusty brown, which would indicate rougher winter weather.

For what it’s worth...

Jim Eckstrom is executive editor of the Olean Times Herald and Bradford Publishing Co. His email is jeckstrom@oleantimesherald.com.)

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