All about Woolly Bears

by Melannie Svoboda SND on November 12, 2018

Where I live, it’s woolly bear season! Woolly bears (or woolly worms) are those cute little black and orangish-brown striped caterpillars you see crawling around in fall (depending on where you live). Found in the U.S. and southern Canada, wooly bears are really the caterpillar stage of the Isabella tiger moth.

Every woolly bear has 13 distinct segments. Their ends are black, but their center is that orangish-brown. Legend has it that woolly bears can predict the type of winter we are going to have. The more brown, the milder the winter. The more black, the more severe the winter.

In 1948 Dr. C.H. Curran, an insect expert, went to Bear Mountain north of New York City to see if that legend could be proven scientifically. For eight years he studied a small sampling of woolly bears. His conclusion: there seemed to be some truth to the legend. However, being a good scientist, he admitted his sampling was too small and his time frame was too short to prove or disprove the legend. Since then, other scientists have discovered that the width of the brown color can tell you the caterpillar’s age. The wider the brown, the older the caterpillar. This means, he (or she) hatched earlier in the season—which means the previous winter was milder! (You might have to read that sentence a couple of times!)

Woolly bears are gentle. They don’t bite, bark, or spit. Their only defense is to curl up into a ball. (There are some days I can identify with that posture!) Also, woolly bears always seem to be scurrying somewhere. Where are they going? They’re searching for food, of course. Wooly bears are “generalist eaters,” which means they aren’t picky. They eat a wide variety of plants.

More importantly, woolly bears are scurrying because they are searching for a suitable place to sleep for the winter. They like to nestle behind the bark of a tree or burrow under some dead leaves. Woolly bears don’t have to worry about freezing either because they have their own “anti-freeze”! When spring comes, the magic happens. Those cute caterpillars spin their cocoon and presto! They are transformed into Isabella tiger moths!

Some places have woolly bear festivals. Vermillion, Ohio (just west of Cleveland) celebrates the woolly bear every year with costume contests for children and pets as well as 500 caterpillar races. It may not be the Kentucky Derby, but it’s great fun. Other places have festivals too in North Carolina, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, New York, and Ontario, Canada.

Here’s a story about my personal encounter with a particular woolly bear many years ago. I was waiting for a bus in Perrysville, PA, north of Pittsburgh. I was standing on a very busy street when, I looked down and saw a woolly bear heading straight towards the street. Aghast, I reached down, cupped him in my hands, and carried him away from the street. When I put him down, I carefully pointed him toward the west—away from the traffic. I went back to the bus stop. A few minutes later, I saw the same woolly bear heading for the street again. A second time I carried him to safety and directed him to “go west, young man (or young woman)!”

But a third time, he disobeyed my wise counsel and was heading for the street. Frustrated, I picked him up, checked both ways for traffic, and then ran across the street with him cupped safely in my hands. I then gently deposited him in some grass on the other side. When I put him down, he continued east, away from traffic, and headed toward a yard with an expansive lawn with big old trees. I remember admiring his determination. He knew exactly where he was going and was not deterred by the well-meaning nun who was frustrating his plan! In a way, I envied him, and wished I was always as clear about the direction of my life!

Woolly bears are cutest when they’re moving. So here’s a 90 second video that focuses on woolly bears moving. It’s appropriately called “Woolly Bears on the Move.”

Have you had any experience with woolly bears? As a child? As an adult?

Is there any other creature in God’s vast creation that intrigues you? or puts a smile on your face?

PS: This week I am making my annual retreat. I promise to hold all of you, the readers of my blog, in special prayer. I really appreciate your “patronage” to “Sunflower Seeds” and your beautiful and insightful responses.

The song today is “Holy Now” by Peter Mayer. I used it a few years ago, but I love it so much, I’m using it again. Mayer says we used to limit “holy” to specifically religious things like scripture, Mass, and holy water. But now he believes everything is holy—including all water, trees, a tiny chirping bird, and (we would add) even a scurrying woolly bear!

Now it’s your turn. Do you have anything to say about this reflection and videos? If so, please respond below!

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathleen Magiera November 12, 2018 at 5:34 am

What a delightful reflection Sr. Melannie! I like to look at the blue birds who come to our bird feeder. They always bring a smile to my face.

Have a wonderful retreat. Thanks for the prayers.

Kathleen

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John November 12, 2018 at 6:43 am

Good Morning, Melannie!

I’ve seen “woolly bears” my whole life, but never knew what they are. Until now! So thank you, and thank you for the song. Here, the leaves are dropping fast and the light leaves us earlier and earlier. The other day I saw a tree, half its leaves gone, the other half a beautiful yellow made positively golden by the last rays of the day. Yes, “everything is holy now.”

Thank you for your prayers…

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Ed November 12, 2018 at 7:09 am

It’s amazing to ponder, is it not, the vast array of creatures existing in God’s universe? As a young boy growing up near Dayton, Ohio, I remember a local weather caster providing his annual “woolly worm” forecast. I seem to recall no scientific correlation to actual weather. Fun, nonetheless. Peace and Blessings during your retreat, Sister.
Ed J.

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Chris Pinzon November 12, 2018 at 7:20 am

Sister Melanie,
Thank you for your information on wooly bears. Since we live in Florida, my husband and I encountered our first wooly bear two weeks ago on a trip to Niagra Falls in Canada. On a hike my husband noticed one on the ground. We both marveled at its color and movement. We did not know what type of caterpillar it was. I was delighted to see that you had posted about our mysterious caterpillar. We love hiking. We feel that God feeds our souls while in nature. Each flower or animal shows us how amazing our God is with giving us so much beauty!
Thanks for sharing and educating us about this small gift from God.
Joyfully,
Chris

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Barbara November 12, 2018 at 8:14 am

Thank you that I finally know the name of that caterpillar and what it turns into. I love all the butterflies and bees and have a garden for them. I also take pictures of plants and all sorts of other creatures so I have several wooly bear pictures. I make cards for birthdays, etc. and I love to have all of God’s wonderful creatures for others to see.

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Jean November 12, 2018 at 8:16 am

Good Morning Sister Melannie,
One of my hobbies is photographing sunrises. That makes this song really ring out the message that everything is holy!! Such gifts from God.
Enjoy your retreat.
Thank you for your prayers and weekly Sunflower Seeds.
Jean

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Carol November 12, 2018 at 8:50 am

The song offers such a unique perspective on “Holy & reverant” but taking in everything around us as Holy is both sobering and humbling. For me all of nature is a testament to God’s handiwork, especially colors that can never be replicated no matter how hard we try. The other are animals, especially dogs and cows. I frequently visit cows to commune with them & feed them oranges. Most people look at me sideways when I tell them of my favorite pastime UNTIL the accompany me to the pasture. When they experience the gentle bovines face to face, everyone one of the doubting Yhomas’s realizes how peaceful & quiet & calming it is to be in the presence of God’s creation. Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.”

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nita compagnone November 12, 2018 at 10:23 am

Hi Sister
I often learn something when I read your blog. I always admired woolly bears but had no idea what they were called or knew a thing about them. Now I do and these cuddly caterpillars have always been a favorite of mine. Something so small is certainly not insignificant. Have a great retreat and thanks for the prayers!

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Jean Canatsey November 12, 2018 at 10:36 am

Dear Sister Melannie,
I loved the song and my husband and I played it twice. I grew up in rural Indiana and we always looked to the color of the woolly worm, the thickness of the horses coats and how tightly wrapped the ears of corn were as predictors of the coming winter. Now living in Florida, I marvel at the caterpillars that feed on our milkweed and passion vine and emerge from their chrysalis as beautiful Monarchs, Fritalaries and Swallow Tails. I never thought about what the wooly worms next stage of life might be or that the color of his coat might more aptly reflect the weather of the previous winter! I completely agree that “Everything is Holy!”

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michelle C. November 12, 2018 at 10:37 am

Sister Melannie. I love the song. I never realized miracles were all around till i started writing a journal. Now when i look back, there have been so many miracles in my life. Life is a journey of miracles.

Thanks for your prayers. Have a wonderful retreat.

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Sr. Sue Orlowski November 12, 2018 at 11:44 am

For years I have been into birds but over the years I have added butterflies and moths. Recently I added bugs to my list of God’s creatures that call to me. When I look into the face of a dragonfly and those big eyes look back at me or look at the face of a lightening bug I thank God for all of creation. You would be amazed how they look so much like the faces of bugs that are in different cartoons. The annamators who make those cartoons must spend a great deal of time looking at bugs to get them to look so life-like.

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Shirley November 12, 2018 at 11:55 am

Thank you Sister Melannie, I look so forward to your Sunflower Seeds every Monday morning. I so enjoyed hearing about the wooly bears, never knew they were called that always called them wooly worms. I did know about the winter predictions according to their color. I did not know they changed into the Isabella Tiger Moth, just knew it was a moth. The song is beautiful, love God’s beauty of nature. Have a blessed retreat and thanks for the prayers!

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karen November 12, 2018 at 1:03 pm

Thank you! I look forward to your Sunflower Seeds every Monday morning. Thanks for the prayers and have a great retreat week.

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Vicki November 12, 2018 at 1:15 pm

That made me smile, really big! You are adorable, and I only wish I could have witnessed it!! {It reminded me of my beloved (farmer) cousin who always stops to help the turtles cross the road :)}
Praying for a wonderful retreat!

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Annie November 12, 2018 at 1:19 pm

TGIMonday. A highlight of my week is hearing from you, Sister Mellaniesvobodasnd. And today is no exception. As I age, I tend to see the great blessings of God’s love more easily, and that is a miracle. Thank God for using you to help us see His blessed work.

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Mary Fran November 12, 2018 at 1:24 pm

Dear Melannie,
What a delight this reflection is. Much to discover when one looks down at the amazing earth we trod and take for granted. Love your wooly bear bus stop encounter.
Mary Fran

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Patty Davidson November 12, 2018 at 1:41 pm

Have a happy retreat ❗

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Mary Zogelman November 12, 2018 at 1:44 pm

Beautiful!!!! God’s creation always amazes me!! Wow-antifreeze in a caterpillar!!!

Love the video!!! thank you Lord for your amazing grace!

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Nona November 12, 2018 at 2:57 pm

Sunflower Seeds is a delight and the music always inspiring. Thank you, Sister!

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Cathy Doty November 12, 2018 at 6:28 pm

Thank you for your weekly reflections.

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Annie November 12, 2018 at 11:36 pm

I remember reading a story about a woman who tried to redirect a tortoise away from a road, just as you did with the woolly bear. She was not successful either. That woolly bear taught you something. Animals seem to know where they want to go, and they have their reasons. They patiently try again when we thwart their efforts. How I wish we could understand them better! I loved reading the book “Smiling Bears” by Elsie Poulsen. She had two questions whenever she respectfully approached the rescued bears she worked with: “Who are you?” and “What can I do for you?” Thanks for your insights and info. The videos were great too. I remember the song from when you shared it before.

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MAry Anne November 13, 2018 at 11:40 am

Love the information on the woolly bears, we have them in Maryland, and I am always curious when I see one, what the colors are, the predictions for the winter according to woolly bear are spot on. Loved the video and the music was great. Thank you. Have a blessed retreat.

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Pamela Freshcorn November 13, 2018 at 11:48 am

Thank you Sister Melannie for Sunflower Seeds and for your prayers!

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Linda November 13, 2018 at 3:24 pm

How lovely! Melanie, you are a “sister” after my own heart for saving the wooly bear. I refuse to kill anything in my home or garden..not a fly, ladybug, spider, or even a mouse (they are rehoused in an old shed.)
Hornets present a real problem for me…as my numerous bites demonstrate!

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Marty November 15, 2018 at 9:12 am

You never stop amazing. God is Holy and where God is, is Holy. God is BEING, and all of creation is being. My favorite is the mother eagle sending her young from the nest so they learn to fly and she catches them in her wings. What trust, like the whooly bear heading off to become its TRUE SELF.

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Sr. Carolyn November 15, 2018 at 10:18 am

Beautiful reflection – so inspiring. Thank you for finding so many lovely selections of music to convey your message of the week! Keep up the helpful inspiration.

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Terri Butel November 26, 2018 at 10:55 am

Thank you for this delightful reflection – a week ago we managed a bike ride on a nearby trail, and on the way home I saw a woolly bear just before he entered the grass. It was thrilling; I hadn’t seen one in ages. It also clarified a mis-perception from childhood. My father’s company hosted fall picnics at a nearby lake in the 60’s; we often saw the webbed nests of webworms in the trees as we drove around the lake, and somehow I associated woolly bears as the web makers – which I now know are two species. Your reflection conjured ‘sepia toned’ visual memories from my happy childhood – and I am grateful.

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