Thursday, September 24, 2009

Bike Biology: Wooly Worm, Wooly Bear, Woolly Bully

What cyclist hasn’t crossed paths with the charming wooly worm on a nice autumn day: those fuzzy little black and orange critters bent on crossing the road just ahead of your front tire?

Recently, I was taken aback as I spotted one attired not in the usual Halloween woolens, but as a blonde! I wasn’t sure whether I’d spotted a mutant or whether it meant we were in for a warm winter!

In spite of getting all worked up over my sighting of a blonde wooly worm, it turns out that I hadn’t discovered a new variety, after all. Either that or “my” Blondie had somehow managed to travel long distances on little legs, given the fact that I was able to locate another blonde wooly worm on line.

Here is her picture. Ain’t she beautiful?

Everyone’s heard of wooly worms, also spelled “woolly.” In some locales they’re called wooly bears. According to legend, wooly worms portend the severity of the approaching winter. Supposedly the wider the orange middle band, the less severe the winter. Some take it further. The wooly worm caterpillar is comprised of thirteen segments, and each black segment is taken to represent a week of winter weather, in this case, up to thirteen weeks of winter weather if the entire worm is black! Brrrrrr!

Here is a short video describing coloration and weather.

Wooly worm sightings this time of year raise several questions. What is a wooly worm? Where are they going? Why the hurry? And the question everyone is asking: Is wooly worm coat coloration a reliable forecaster of winter weather? I’ll attempt to answer these questions best I can, having access to unrivaled resources at Research Trailer Park (RTP).

Research Trailer Park, courtesty of sagittandy.

While I was pouring over thick monographs at RTP on the subject of wooly worm biology, it occurred to me while I was daydreaming that the typography of the word “wooly” along with its variant, “woolly,” resemble caterpillars. That’s it! The wooly worm is a caterpillar! And everyone as smart as a fifth grader knows that caterpillars metamorphose into either moths or butterflies depending upon whether these winged wonders work the night shift or whether they work days, respectively.

As an aside, if you would like to have your very own pet wooly worm and personally witness this spectacular metamorphosis, here are directions for its care. But first you will need a wooly worm.

Although there are literally hundreds of simple and effortless ways to catch a wooly worm, I prefer a bicycle equipped with panniers and a small plastic container in which I normally carry electrolyte capsules. First, I dump the electrolyte capsules from the container. Second, I exchange my wide 700 x 28 touring tires for narrower 700 x 23 racing tires so as not to needlessly endanger my future captive during the chase. Third, I mount full, double panniers—front or back, it doesn’t really matter—so as to have ample space for my electrolyte capsule cum woollybear container. Lastly, I practice dismounting, attaching cleat covers, and sprinting at least ten meters on pavement.

All is not lost if you don’t have a bicycle and the aforementioned accoutrements and still want to join the fun. You can simply enlist a neighborhood kid to join you with your science project. He or she will locate and catch a wooly worm in the back yard for you before you’ve even had time to don your cycling helmet.

If your wooly worm science project is successful, you’ll be rewarded for your effort with something like this:

. . . a beautiful tiger moth!

Bug people known as entomologists assert that our wooly worm goes by the scientific name: Pyrrharctia isabella thanks to a naturalist named Smith back in the year 1797.
Most species of caterpillars turn into moths or butterflies prior to winter. The wooly worm is unlike other caterpillars, since it will overwinter as a caterpillar. The “hairs” covering its body are called setae. They are a form of insulation. Additionally, the wooly worm’s tissues are protected from freezing by a cryoprotectant similar to but not necessarily ethylene glycol, otherwise known as antifreeze. The reason we witness wooly worms in a hurry may be due to the fact that they must locate a suitable place to hunker down for winter.

Here is a cool video entitled Wooly Worm Winter with bluegrass music.

The wooly worm hairs are not stingers, nor do they secrete noxious chemicals, one reason these fine fuzzy friends make such good pets. When disturbed, the wooly worm turns into a ball, playing “dead,” like this:
Finally, regarding the reliability of wooly worm forecasting: the number of black segments may be an indication of the age of the wooly worm rather than a reliable means of predicting weather. As the worm ages the middle orange segment encroaches upon the black ends. If one were to collect a number of wooly worms this time of year, one would find a variety of color patterns.

But that hasn’t stopped the numerous wooly worm festivals that occur usually in October with a central theme of winter prognostication. Move over Punxsutawney Phil. In fact, there’s one in Banner Elk, NC, each year. The following video provides a somewhat “comprehensive” account of last year’s event and related wooly bear miscellany. At about 2:33, you’ll see the Lees-McRae College cycling team that sponsored a winning entry in the wooly worm race. According to these adherents, the coloration of the race winner is the veritable predictor of winter weather.

Now you know what wooly worms are, why they haven’t yet taken flight, why they’re in such a hurry, where they’re going, and something about weather prediction, which is bound to start an argument!

Let’s hear it for the wooly worm! Wooly Bully!


Dr Codfish said...

Excellent, cycling touches everything!

Yr Pal, Dr C

Charles Lathe said...


To quote a contemporary of Sam, "You are a classical gas."

Here's a link to another classic Wolly Bully song:

Thanks for Sam the Sham and the Pharaos... I would've forgot.

One of your big fans, Chuck (Franklinville)

dean furbish said...

Thanks for your kind comments, Chuck. While I chose to include the full song by Sam the Sham and the Pharaos, I have to credit Mike D's instincts for suggesting to put the group in full view on stage.