In the last week, I’ve seen almost 50 wooly bear caterpillars. These caterpillars are also known as “wooly caterpillar”, “bear caterpillar” and “wooly worms” (latin: phyrrhartica isabella). These fuzzy, brown and black caterpillars come out just as the weather grows cold. I often find hidding in woodpiles or garden mulch getting ready to hibernate till the spring. The cold seems to summon them forth–you see nothing of them all summer, and then, a few weeks before Samhain they are everywhere. And, dear readers, they are here with a message.
These caterpillars, not unlike other famous wildlife in the area, have long been known to predict the harshness of winter. If a wooly bear caterpillar has more brown than black, that means the winter is mild. But, if the caterpillar has more black than brown, the winter will be tough. Here’s a graphic I made to share this wooly bear caterpillar prognostication!
The more advanced version of this was taught to me by my grandfather, George Custer, who said that you can “read” the beginning and end of winter with the caterpillar. The brown and black do matter, but the more black at the beginning of the caterpillar, the harsher the beginning of winter will be. The more black at the back of the caterpillar, the more harsh the end of winter will be, and the more prolonged.
Here’s some live examples from photos I’ve taken over the last few years. This wooly was from last year (and did, in fact, predict a terribly harsh and cold winter!)
This is a wooly I just found this year–I’m hoping this little guy is right and that winter will be mild and very pleasant!
There are stories about where this tradition originated and how it was popularized in the mid 1800’s (you can read more here). This particular folk tradition appears to exist all along the Appalachian mountains, anywhere that the caterpillar typically lives. And the wooly bear is not the only weather prognosticator in this region; we also have Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog 45 minutes north of where I live who also does weather predictions about winter and the coming of spring.
I think that embracing these kinds of folk traditions is an important part of rewilding our druid and nature-based spiritual practices. These kinds of locally-based traditions get is more intune and aware of our surroundings. And folk traditions, whether rooted or not in reality, have tremendous power.
Before modern weather prediction, humans relied on a large number of subtle cute from the land and clouds to know what kinds of weather was happening and what to expect both short term and throughout the winter. Preparation for winter, effective preparation, was critical to survival. Being able to read the land in this way was a skill that many people once had. I don’t think a lot of us realize how much we see without understanding. A book ( Finding Your Way Without a Map or Compass by Harold Gatty). really helped illustrate just how much I didn’t know, and Gatty’s book is a great place to start regaining this lost wisdom. Gatty shares a lot of information about how to read the landscape, the clouds, the trees, and so on to establish prevailing wind patterns, read the weather, and get from one place to another. His is a rather scientific and observational approach. I like to combine his approach with more esoteric approaches, like the wooly bear’s weather predictions. The combination of these things can help us be more aware and prepared in our environment.
I love seeing the wooly bear caterpillars this time of year. Yes, they say, winter is coming. And yes, you need to prepare. I think its great that they live in my woodpile–just what I need to be attending to before winter comes. I hope that you, dear readers, are settling in. The caterpillars tell me that winter will be fairly mild this year.
(I’d also be delighted to hear about other folk customs of similar animal/insect divinations if you have any to share!)