Woollybear caterpillar

Woollybear caterpillars are a common sight this time of year. Danny and I keep finding them on our walks, which we have been making a daily habit to fend off the fall doldrums. The old gravel roadway, which circles our neighbourhood through the pine plantation, is littered with these creature moving from place to place.

Why are they appearing now? Apparently they are getting ready to hibernate. The caterpillars find places to hide in leaf litter and actually freeze solid when the weather turns cold. Don’t try this yourself. The insects’ tissues produce a special chemical that prevents freezing damage. They can and do survive in the Arctic, where summers are so short that the caterpillar is known to live up to 14 years to accumulate enough nourishment to pupate and mature.

They will eat practically any plant but prefer bitter herbs.

And what exactly does it become? A dull yellow, thick-bodied moth called the Isabella tiger moth, Pyrrharctia isabella.

There does not seem to be much credibility to the notion that you can predict a severe winter if the woollybears’ stripes are narrow. For starters, stripes can vary greatly within a group of caterpillars. So the woollybear may be about as reliable as Wiarton Willie who predicts the end of winter on Groundhog Day.

Nevertheless, various fall woollybear festival have sprung up for the purpose of collecting them, measuring stripes and engaging in other meaningless fun. We all need some way of anticipating our fate. Maybe more than that, we need to celebrate the change of seasons (and passage of years) rather than bemoaning them.

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