Woolly bears say what?

ANCRAMDALE—When driving, especially at this time of year, we Columbia Countians know to be on the lookout for those hairy, long-legged, hooved beasts that seem to come out of nowhere and obliviously leap into the road.

But lately I’ve been noticing another hairy specimen, this one about the size of a peanut that does not so much catapult as crawl across the road in numbers that seem startling this year.

The sight made me wonder: Where are all these woolly worms going? Are they trying to tell me something?

Woolly worms, a/k/a, woolly bears, a/k/a, black-ended bears, are reddish brown and black caterpillars—the larval stage of the Isabella tiger moth.
They look like miniature bottle brushes and legend has it that the severity of the coming winter can be predicted based on how much of the caterpillar is black and how much is brown. The wider the brown midsection the milder the winter; if the brown section is narrow the winter will be a whopper.

So, what are woolly worms across the county revealing about this winter?

Scientists and bug experts chuckled and said they couldn’t help me or didn’t call me back. I guess they didn’t want to come right out and squash my hopes of writing an exclusive breaking news story.

But I was able to get the dirt from a gardener.

Donna Peterson, Master Gardener Program coordinator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Columbia and Greene Counties, broke it to me gently.

Unfortunately, using the woolly bear caterpillar as weather predictor is not scientifically credible, she said.

Starting as a master gardener in 1994 and moving up to program coordinator seven years ago, Ms. Peterson put my question to her network of Cornell experts, who said the woolly bear is perhaps the least destructive caterpillar and the one most people recognize and are curious about because of its “cuteness.”  She said the woolly bear has 13 segments colored black or brown and the length or width of the segments or bands have everything to do with the caterpillar’s age and nothing to do with the weather.

She also cleared up the mystery of the woolly bear parade. They are all on a mission to find a safe, snug, winter hideaway.
“They are looking for places to overwinter”—under leaves or rocks or in the bark of trees, she explained. Next spring they will weave a cocoon around themselves and eventually emerge as a moth and lay eggs that will produce a new generation of woolly bears.

Since the woolly bear/weather correlation didn’t pan out, I asked Ms. Peterson if anything in the plant kingdom might offer some hint about the coming season.

Perennial plants, trees and shrubs all reflect the weather they have endured, but what they reveal are past conditions. A plant that has encountered excess heat, cold, drought or too much rain in one year will show it the following year, she said.

So, I turned to a weatherman.
Steve DiRienzo, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Albany, told The Columbia Paper this week that most abnormal winters, that is, winters that are unnaturally warm or those that bring petrifying cold and mountains of snow are all associated with the presence El Niño or La Niña.

These phenomena affect the sea surface temperature in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. El Niño is characterized by unusually warm temperatures and La Niña by unusually cool temperatures. Weather in the eastern United States is affected by conditions near the equator courtesy of the jet stream.

Since neither El Niño nor La Niña is in play now, Mr. DiRienzo anticipates a “normal” or average winter ahead.

Based on records dating back to 1957 for Hudson, the meteorologist said that means we can expect around 40-inches of snow from now through April with 70% of it falling in December, January and February.

Average daytime temperatures in December will be around 30 degrees Fahrenheit; 24 degrees in January and 27 degrees in February.
With the cold coming, it would seem the woolly bears have the right idea, except for the crawling across the road part. Maybe they are trying to tell us something.

To contact Diane Valden email .

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