The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

February 8, 2014

Forget Phil the groundhog, my money’s on the worm

The Back Porch

By Nerissa Young

— I’m planning to file a breach of contract class-action lawsuit against the woolly worms in southern West Virginia. We were lied to!

The fuzzy larvae are harmless enough to handle. When you pick one up, it curls into a ball and doesn’t sting.

But those bands of orange and black, now that’s something else altogether.

Mom and I carefully observed the markings on the many we saw in the fall. For those who don’t know, these wrigglers are supposed to predict winter weather. The length of the orange band means the number of mild winter days. The black bands mean the number of harsh winter days. The goal is to find one that is mostly orange and hope for a mild winter.

And we saw plenty with short black bands at both ends and long orange bands in the middle. That means a rough start and end to winter with a midsection that is pretty temperate.

I did see one mostly black one, but I dismissed it as an aberration. Majority rule, right? Turns out, that black one is the only one that told the truth.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac — and there’s no better source than that — explained the story, mythology and probability that these insects-to-be actually forecast the weather.

Dr. C.H. Curran, curator of insects at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, is the person who made the worms famous. He drove north of the city in fall 1948 to look at the critters officially known as woolly bear caterpillars.

He collected all he could in a day, determined the average number of orange segments of the 13 in the caterpillar’s body and predicted the following winter’s weather via a reporter friend from The New York Herald Tribune.

Curran did the same thing for the following eight years and attempted to prove whether the folklore surrounding the worm’s ability was accurate. As a scientist, he acknowledged his “experiment” had its flaws due to small sample size.

From 1948 to 1956, Curran determined the average length of the orange band to be 5.3 to 5.6 of the larvae’s 13 segments. The corresponding winters were milder than usual.

The almanac quotes Mike Peters, a University of Massachusetts, as saying the woolly worm could, indeed, be a harbinger of winter weather — the previous winter’s weather.

He said evidence suggests the brown hairs tell the caterpillar’s age by showing how early or late in the spring it got going.

Driving in this cold, snowy winter is giving me gray hairs so maybe the whole process is retro.

I use the same law firm as Click and Clack, the Tappet brothers. If you want to join my lawsuit, call Dewey, Cheetham and Howe.

— Young is a Register-Herald columnist. E-mail:

© 2014 by Nerissa Young