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This article is from the Encyclopedia of North Carolina edited by William S. Powell. Copyright © 2006 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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Woolly Worm

by Angelyn H. Patteson, 2006Woolly Worm, Blowing Rock, NC. Image courtesy of Flickr user Christy Frink.

The fuzzy brown and black creature commonly called the woolly worm or woolly bear is the larval form of the tiger moth (Isia isabella). Woolly worms appear in early fall, when they feast on common plants, and emerge in spring from the pupa stage as moths.

North Carolina's Mountain peoples have long relied on the woolly worm's markings to predict the severity of the upcoming winter. The belief that the coloration of the woolly worm's coat matches the harsh and mild periods of the winter has several variations. For instance, the 13 bands on the caterpillar's body, colored brown and black, are said to correspond to the 13 weeks of winter, and the darker a band, the harsher that week will be. Another version holds more generally that a predomination of dark bands means a hard winter, and a majority of brown bands predicts a mild season.

"Reading the worms" is a popular fall pastime in the North Carolina Mountains. Banner Elk hosts an annual Woolly Worm Festival at which the main events are the woolly worm races. Caterpillars race on three-foot strings in heats until a champion is found, and the winning woolly worm is used for the upcoming winter's prediction. The Center for Woolly Worm Studies at Appalachian State University in Boone conducts annual studies on about 500 woolly bear caterpillars in a more scientific attempt to predict the winter weather.

References:

Jerry Bledsoe, Carolina Curiosities (1990).

Horton Cooper, North Carolina Folklore and Miscellany (1972).

Image Credit:

Woolly Worm, Blowing Rock, NC. Image courtesy of Flickr user Christy Frink. Available from https://www.flickr.com/photos/scribebytrade/5100674085/ (accessed July 25, 2012).

Additional Resources:

Woolly Bear, The Old Farmer's Almanac: http://www.almanac.com/content/predicting-winter-weather-woolly-bear-caterpillars

Interview with Roy Krege from the Woolly Worm Festival in Banner Elk, N.C., NPR: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130625618

Antonelli, A.L. "Woolly Bears." Cooperative Extension, Washington State University Puyallap. May 2003. http://puyallup.wsu.edu/plantclinic/resources/pdf/pls54woollybears.pdf  (accessed November 6, 2013).

Origin - location: 

Comments

Comment: 

I saw a worm with the same wooly look as the wooly worm but all black and it was about 4 inches long and very fat, possibly twice as fat.

Comment: 

victoria: black woolly worms don't bite

Comment: 

The yellow and black bite my neck irritated it badly

Comment: 

addison stump: no,no,and no woolly worms dont do any thing

Comment: 

They diffently do bite and or there hair or something got me today. It was yellow and black and I definitely had a friend pull the yellow hairs from my skin and it stings and feels like a burn. There is bumps and ugh lol

Comment: 

Found an all black woolly bear on our porch (Central PA). Thought he was a goner but when I picked him up I just felt he wasn’t. He’s been out there for about a week, so today I brought him in and put him in a box and he has started moving around. What should I do with him? Shouldn’t he be going underground? What do they eat? Thanks!

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