Woolly bears and burrowing moles — oh my!

Published 10:16 pm Tuesday, November 17, 2015

By Susan and Biff Andrews

We saw a woolly bear caterpillar while walking the other day. As we all know (learned at Granddaddy’s knee) they can predict the severity of the coming winter.

Woolly bear caterpillars have 13 segments — black at the ends and rusty reddish brown in the center. Supposedly, the wider the brown stripe, the milder the winter. A very narrow brown stripe is bad, bad, bad.

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Having been disappointed by their predictions in the past, we set out to find if they can, indeed, predict anything. We found that the woolly bear (called the woolly worm to our south) actually CAN predict the weather — from last spring. If it was an early spring, there will be a wider brown streak, as the caterpillar has a longer growing season.

These offspring of the Isabella tiger moth (an orange moth rarely seen, as it only emerges in the dark of night) may actually vary among the offspring of the same parents in the same brood.

But as for foretelling the coming winter — nope.

So we consulted the “Old Farmer’s Almanac,” another infallible source of weather prediction, according to our forbears. The OFA has been published since 1792 on the second Tuesday in September of the year preceding the cover date.

It bases its predictions on variations from 30-year averages in temperature, precipitation, sunspots and other solar activity. When the OFA accuracy was checked over a few years, the accuracy of precipitation predictions was 51.9 percent, and the accuracy of temperature variation was 50.7 percent. Not very reliable, either.

So we researched other folklore predictors of winter weather, and this is what we found:

  • A locally-grown persimmon gets cut in half. If the kernel inside is shaped like a spoon, there will be heavy wet snow. If it’s shaped like a fork, there will be lots of powdery light snow. If it’s shaped like a knife, winter will be cold and clear with cutting, blustery winds.
  • If rabbits are unusually fat in October and November, it will be a long, cold winter.
  • If pigs gather straw and leaves in the fall, it will be a long, cold winter.
  • If a mole’s burrow is one foot deep, it will be a mild winter. If it’s two and a half feet, uh-oh!
  • Other predictors of long, hard winters: thick acorn shells; hornets, bees, and wasps nesting higher in trees; geese heading south early; larger-than-usual pine cones in larger-than-usual numbers; and the brighter the fall foliage, the harsher the winter to come.

So we consulted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service, specifically the Climate Prediction Center. They also “read” what Mother Nature has in store for us, but they read jet streams, ocean current temperatures and so on.

Their website says that for December/January/February of 2015-2016, our temperature range will be about normal, but the precipitation will be slightly above normal. We should experience a variety of winter precipitation. The subtropical jet stream will provide more moisture than usual (due to El Niño), but the joker in the deck is the number of cold air intrusions from Canada.

Go figure. They’re not sure either.

We’re teaching our grandchildren to consult the Almanac and observe the woolly bears. It’s lots more fun and about as reliable as anything else.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at b.andrews22@live.com.