By Lacy Hilliard
A name like Isabella tiger moth commands a certain amount of respect. The name perhaps also inspires a bit of mysticism which could explain why the woolly worm (the larval form of the Isabella tiger moth) is said to possess a super power: the ability predict the weather.
Similar to the groundhogs shadow, traditional folklore states that the orange and black bands on this fuzzy autumn insect can determine how long or short the upcoming winter will be; the concentration of the colors determine the intensity of the winter. Though science doesnt acknowledge the accuracy of the woolly worms weather predicting capabilities, the insect has held an 80-85% accuracy rate for the past 20 years. Scientifically speaking, temperature, moisture level and food availability are all variables that contribute to the coloration of the woolly worm. It is unknown how the legend began but its been a traditional part of Northeast American culture for many years. Locally, Banner Elk, North Carolina located in Avery County holds a Woolly Worm Festival each autumn. The main attraction at the festival is the woolly worm race. The lucky winner of the race takes home a one-thousand-dollar prize; full woolly worm bragging rights and of course, is honored as the upcoming winters official forecaster.
The winner of this years woolly worm race was Lickity Split. Overall, Lickity Split predicts a cold and snowy start to winter but a mild finish. The first four weeks are predicted to be extremely cold and snowy. The fifth weeks forecast is a bit milder. Weeks four through eleven are said to contain above average temperatures but on the thirteenth the winter will rear its frigid head again.
The woolly worm or woolly bear (as it is commonly referred to in New England) is comprised of thirteen tiny segments, three sets of legs and pin-sized eyes. Internally, the woolly worm has layer of cells that produce a natural antifreeze that allows the insect to overwinter in its larval form. Prior to entering its winter slumber, the woolly worm fattens up on a variety of vegetation including highly alkaline leaves, which may be a form of self-medication as a pH with a high alkalinity acts as a natural anti-parasitic. After a smorgasbord of grass, clover, and other leafy greens, the woolly worm is ready to begin its perilous journey in search of shelter that will provide appropriate protection for the winter. Typically, the woolly worm overwinters underneath boulders or logs. When the woolly worm locates its winter resting place, it curls up into a tight ball for optimum protection from predators and begins its chilly slumber. In the spring (typically around May), the woolly worm will wake from its winter snooze and immediately go into pupate where it will emerge a brilliantly colored Isabella tiger moth. Seeing the woolly worm in its moth form is a rare experience. As the Isabella tiger moth emerges, it has only one day to locate a mate to continue its lineage before it dies.
The orange and black stripes of the woolly worm decorate the autumn ground almost as vividly as the newly fallen leaves. Each tiny woolly worm carries a bit of history on its bristly exterior; so the next time youre faced with this autumn companion, take note of its coloration; for the prediction it brings may astound you.
By Lacy Hilliard