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Woolly Bears or Woolly Worms
October 19, 2009

We are in Northern Michigan right now, hopefully enjoying a couple of days of Autumn colors and some of Michigan's other wonders.

We will be back Tuesday, Lord willing.

October temperatures still remain 10 to 15 degrees below normal around here.

Instead of the low 60's for this time of year, we get to enjoy many cloudy, damp days in the 40's and 50's.

Hopefully it will rebound some.

With the way the weather has gone this year, I don't even want to know what winter may be like.

It's to early for all the cloudy days.

I need some sunshine.

Last weekend's killing frosts have put a total end to the growing season around here.

I spent much of the week doing fall clean up.

Pulling up dead annuals and cutting back some of the perennials.

Tender bulbs like glads and cannas have been dug, cleaned and ready to store for the winter.

Much of the yard art has been cleaned up and packed away as well.

I still get my walks in and sometimes I bring my camera.

This past Wednesday, I was down by the pond when I saw these migrating visitors.

The first photograph is a "Pied-Billed Grebe and the one below is a pair of 'Hooded Mergansers' enjoy a rest and good swim.

Migrating birds passing through.

I do enjoy nature, you never know what to expect.

It could be the the spider and bee I witnessed last week.

It might be a sudden attack of a hawk snagging a dove at your feeders.

I new bird to add to your life list, or just a beautiful day that might offer a huge surprise.

You can find some real good buys at garden centers this time of year, especially in the northern regions.

Garden centers want to reduce inventory.


I repeat this from time to time because readers come and go.

Some readers are new to gardening and still others get busy and may forget.

Growing season is pretty much done for in zones 3, 4, 5 and some zone 6, so use caution if you plan to buy and plant.

Roots need time to grow and get established or the plants wont make it through the rigors of winter.

That goes for hardy native plants as well.

If the roots don't have time to get established, a plant will die.

You will either want to mulch heavily or stick them in a special bed, pot and all.

Are you transplanting?

Make sure you get plenty of root and soil.

Again, you will want to mulch.

Remember to keep all new plantings and transplants watered.

Roots continue to grow and feed the plant until the ground freezes.

Warmer regions, you still have time to buy and plant.

A couple of years ago, I was so busy, I forgot to mulch my special finds and lost most of them because I didn't mulch.

Freeze and thaw, freeze and thaw, can do a number on plants.............

Especially ones that were planted in the fall and didn't have the chance to get established.

Some plants were zone hardy to zones 3 and 4.

Without the chance to really get rooted, upheaval lead to plant death.

A good layer of mulch could've prevented that.

Bird activity is still a happening thing, even here in Michigan.

As you can see, I still have the goofy Cormorant hanging out near the pond.

Many birds that were scarce a few weeks ago during molt are now back and in a feeding frenzy.

Much more so with the cooler weather.

Migrating birds come and go as well.

With all this activity, I keep my feeders full and clean year round.

I also make sure to offer fresh water.

You will want to do so as well.

Migrating birds that stay in North America set up feeding territories right away.

Birds that migrate from Canada to northern tier states and into the south are looking for a territory that can sustain them.

Birds that migrate from the northern tier states to the southern regions are also looking for a food rich environment.

Remember, the main reason birds migrate is for a sustainable food supply.

By keeping your feeders up and full, they can establish an early feeding territory and routine.

Your local population will be happy too.

The cooler weather has put most of the insect world into dormancy.

One insect you will see and in fact is common only in the fall is the 'Woolly Bear' or 'Woolly Worm' caterpillar.


So let's get on with this weeks topic shall we?


Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella)

The common moth is known by different common names at its two main life stages.

The adult is the Isabella tiger moth.

and the larva is called the banded Woolly bear or Woolly worm.

The larvae of many species of Arctiid moths are called "Woolly bears" because of their long, thick, fur like setae or hair.

The Banded Woolly Bear or Woolly Worm.

Most people aren't nearly as familiar with the Isabella tiger moth as they are with its caterpillar, the banded woolly bear.

While the striped black and brown Woolly bear or Woolly worm caterpillar is the best known, there are actually eight different species of Woolly worms in a variety of colors, from light brown to white & black.

Taday, I will touch on the familiar black and brown Woolly bear.

The colors vary according to the worm’s diet and its age as well as heat and moisture.

Did it grow up in a dry place or a wet area.

All of these play a factor in your Woolly bears.

As Woolly worms go through their instars (shed their skin), their color goes from mostly orange to the typical stripped look that is common in late fall.

Folklore has it that the more black the Woolly bear has on it, the more severe the upcoming winter will be.

As a child my parents told this as if it were a fact.

I think my parents did believe, and many people today still believe this to be true.

But in fact, larvae produced in the same clutch of eggs can vary from mostly red to mostly black, even when reared under the same conditions, and this variability invalidates any actual temperature-related trends that may otherwise be evident.

The banded Woolly bear (also called the Woolly worm in some regions) has three bands.

Two outer black bands and one middle reddish-brown band.

This species is black at both ends with a band of coppery red or rusty red color in the middle.

The adult moth is dull yellow to orange with a robust, furry thorax and small head.

Its wings have sparse black spotting and the proximal segments on its first pair of legs are bright reddish-orange.

The moth has a wingspan of around 2-2.5 inches (5-6.3 cm).

The Woolly bear is a sign of fall.

Kids love them and even many adults try to avoid running over them.

The banded Woolly bear larva emerges from the egg in the fall and overwinters in its caterpillar form.

This is why we don't see them in the summer months.

Well into October you will see them crossing the back roads, sidewalks and driveways, along with many that didn't make it.

After fattening up on a variety of grasses and weeds, these little autumn travelers, seek places to hibernate.

If you look under boards, rocks, loose tree bark, mounds of leaves, flower pots or even snow, you'll find cozy Woolly bears waiting for spring, when they continue feeding and growing.

Once the weather warms, the larva devours all the grass and weeds it can, pupates, and becomes an adult, which then lives through the summer.

The caterpiller can grow to slightly over 2 inches.

That same spring they spin their silk cocoons, within which they will change into moths after two or three weeks.

Adults live through the summer, mate, lay eggs and begin the life cycle over again.

Caterpillars survive winter freezes by producing a cryoprotectant in its tissues.

A cryoprotectant is a substance that is used to protect biological tissue from freezing damage.

Insects and other Arctic and Antarctic wildlife create cryoprotectants (antifreeze compounds and antifreeze proteins) in their bodies to minimize freezing damage during cold winter periods.

Insects most often use sugars or polyols as cryoprotectants.

Imagine the things a person can learn :-)

Woolly worms can survive extreme cold temperatures because of the bristly hair that covers their entire body and their unique ability to produce an antifreeze-like coating made up of glycerol and other chemicals.

Scientists estimate that Woolly worms can probably survive temperatures of up to 90 gegrees below zero.

In fact, live Woolly bears have been found frozen in a cube of ice.

Once the ice melted, the worms immediately picked up on their normal activity.

The Isebella Tiger Moth is common throughout most of North and Central America (except extreme northern Canada).

As is the case with most moths, Isabella moths are nocturnal and so you won't typically see them during the daytime.

The Isabella tiger moth caterpillar isn't very specific about its host plants.

It is able to use a variety of host plants and broad-leafed trees.

Like most of the tiger moth caterpillars the banded Woolly bear will roll up into a ball if you attempt to pick it up or disturb it in some way.

The setae or hair of the Woolly bear caterpillar do not inject venom and are not urticant as some species will do.

They do not cause irritation, injury, inflammation, or swelling.

However, they will play dead if picked up or disturbed.

Handling them is discouraged, however, as the bristles may cause dermatitis in people with sensitive skin.

Woolly bears are one of the most dosile creatures you will encounter.

This species is a generalist feeder, as it feeds on many different species of plants, especially herbs and forbs.

The hairy body and camolage colors deter the Woolly worm from becoming a mainstay on the menu for birds and other predators.

Sometimes it is referred to as a hedge hog caterpillar because it plays dead and rolls into a protective ball just like the bristlely creatures.

Some Wooly Festivals:

Woolly bears are a big deal in Vermilion, Ohio (a rural area west of Cleveland).

The city dedicates an entire day of celebration to woolly bears at their annual Woolly Bear Festival.

The small, one-stoplight town of Banner Elk, North Carolina also hosts a Woolly Worm Festival.

They have a Woolly worm race with over 1,400 racing caterpillars.

The winner of the race is the banded 'Woolly Bear' that will predict the severity of weather of the coming winter.

Other woolly bear festivals include Beattyville, Kentucky every October and the Camargo, Illinois festival, complete with Woolly worm races and reports from local meteorologists.

Don't You Love It?

Many people enjoy raising these banded Woolly bears before they develop into moths, especially kids.

Here are some tips on how to do this.

Before collecting the Woolly bears, find an appropriate container to store them.

A small plastic container with a lid should work just fine.

Make sure to poke some holes into the lid for ventilation.

Add some soil into the container to allow the caterpillars to burrow.

Feed the Woolly bears crumbled pieces of leaves or other plants. They actually enjoy eating dandelions, so you will have a good use for your weeds.

Make sure to add a small amount of water once every two weeks or so.

Do not over-water the soil, though.

When cool comes around, the Woolly bears will become slow moving.

This is their cue for them to overwinter.

If you want to raise them into moths, keep them in a cool environment, such as a garage, screened in porch or cool basement.

To raise them as moths, you will need a place to store them.

Kids should have some supervised help from an adult.

You can create an emergence cage for them to live in as they grow.

Take some old window screens and cut them so that they are about 8 inches high.

Find two used tuna cans (make sure that the edges are filed smooth so you do not cut your fingers.

Make a cylinder with the screen and staple the ends together.

Place one tuna can on the top and one on the bottom of the cylinder.

Now you have your emergence cage.

Put about 2 inches of soil inside the cage, as well as plenty of leaf debris for the Woolly bears to munch on.

Put one or two Woolly bears in the cage and watch them develop into Isabella tiger moths.

Once the moth is ready, release so it can live to make a new generation of Woollies for next fall.

If you want to catch adult Isabella tiger moths, keep in mind that they are attracted to light in the nighttime.

If you hang a white sheet or tablecloth over a clothesline outside and place a light source behind it, you may be able to attract the moths.

I have always been delighted at the prospect of a new day, a fresh try, one more start, with perhaps a bit of magic waiting somewhere behind the morning.

J.B. Priestly (1894-1984) English Author

I like this quote don't you?

Each day offers a fresh start.

Thank you Lord for another day.

We should jump out of bed with enthusiasm (or move slowly with joy).

Not that we do, but we should.

A fresh start.

A new day.

What can we do today?

What can you accomplish?

How can you help another person?

How can you tackle a certain opportunity or situation?

Your body, mind and spirit are refreshed and ready to go.

Forget about yesterday, that is in the past.

Now you have the idea..............

That's the attitude to have.

The possibility of some magic waiting within the morning and day a head.

The author isn't referring to pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but something divine.

Something God given.

It may be something and as simple and precious as a hug.

Maybe watching the innocence of children at play.

Or it may be new life that 'Nature' has given you to enjoy.

A sunrise or sunset.

It could be a rainbow.

Or, a smile :-)

A new day offers us so much.

A new day is full of endless possibilities.

You and I only have to open our eyes and heart for the joy and adventures.

Now that is worth a huge smile don't you think.

Start tomorrow and everyday with with the endless prospects a new day offers.

Start with a big smile and thank you.

Be sure to share your smiles and new found riches with others.

So many good things happen when we can start with a smile.

Until next time my friend.

God Bless.

"Treat the earth well:

It was not given to you by your parents,

It was loaned to you by your children.

We do not inherit the Earth from our

Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children."

Ancient Indian Proverb

Your friend indeed,

Ron Patterson

PS. If you enjoy these letters, please forward them to friends, family and co-workers.

Better yet, have them sign up so they can receive their own letters.

Gardening For Wildlife.

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