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Answer Man: On woolly caterpillars and bike bells

August 31, 2018 GMT

Late last week, I received an email of two seemingly unrelated questions, but upon closer scrutiny, I think the writer of this message may in fact be a caterpillar inquiring about the forecast and how to stay safe long enough to see the winter.

Oh Knower Of All … I have a two-parter for you today. The questions cover a wide range of topics, but I know that your vast capabilities will be able to handle the load.

First: During a walk yesterday on one of the many trails here in Rochester. I came across two wooly caterpillars. The odd thing being that both were completely white. In your vast knowledge of folklore how does that bode for the upcoming winter?

There are many names for the woolly bear caterpillar but last I checked, it didn’t hold the title of meteorologist. Nevertheless, when one possesses a skill for divining future weather patterns, credit should be given where credit is due.

The National Weather Service tells us the myth of the meteorological caterpillar has been around since colonial times but really grew to popularity in 1948 due to the work of Dr. Howard Curran. Curran was a curator of entomology from the American Museum of Natural History. He did a small study on Bear Mountain, New York, that involved counting the brown bands on 15 different specimens, the National Weather Service says.

For some reason, he then made a prediction for the winter. How those two things go together is a question even the Answer Man can’t divine, but the prediction was published in the New York Herald Tribune, and there you have it.

But to answer your specific question, I turned to a handy website called “All About Worms” which touts itself as “your place to find out all about worms, caterpillars, and other (no so) creepy crawlies.”

According to lore, traditional brown- and black-banded woolly worms forecast the weather by the color and width of their stripes. Bolder black bands mean cold, while wider brown stripes indicate milder weather. And all white woolly? Well, they are seen as a “strong indicator of heavier than average snows for the season,” according to a December 2017 post called “White Woolly Worm Weather Predictions and other Insect Tales.”

“Pair these sightings with all-black woolly bear caterpillars and you may be in for a long, cold spell surrounded by deep snow.”

Just as our furry friends show us, it’s never too early to break out the parka and it looks like we’re going to need it this winter.

Second: On that same walk I encountered several bike riders. And while most all of them were courteous and, when coming up behind me, gave me a verbal warning, some sped by silently. If I had mis-stepped at the last minute, something would have been broken. My question pertains to a memory of when I used to ride bikes in my much younger days. It seems we all had small bells on the handle bars that warned people of our approach. Is that considered too geeky today, or do they not make those bells anymore?

If being courteous, safe and musical is “too geeky” than I never want to be cool. Bike bells are still very much a thing, and many bikes come directly from the factory already equipped with one, according to Mike Jackson, a “bike guy” at Rochester’s Honest Bike Shop.

In fact, Jackson tells me that people are using bells now more than ever. The shop carries a couple dozen options.

“It is an accessory that many people find useful,” Jackson said.

So make sure to use your bike bells to alert those woolly caterpillars of your presence before you scare them white and doom us all to a long, snowy winter.