Signs of Fall: Wooly Bear Caterpillar

This insect  is a common sight in Raymore Park at this time of year inching its way along pathways and clearings. The freshly hatched wooly bear caterpillar is often seen moving along the ground looking for a hibernation spot. This one will pupate; in spring and its offspring will pupate in summer. Eggs from the summer generation hatch to become the overwintering caterpillar.

Pyrrharctia isabella; the banded wooly bear caterpillar

Pyrrharctia isabella; the banded wooly bear caterpillar trundling to a winter refuge.

These benign caterpillars have 13 segments and feed on plants such as clover and milkweed. Despite a spiky rather than wooly appearance, they contain no poison although handling them may trigger allergies in sensitive folk. If disturbed, they curl into a ball and stay still. Folk legends say that if the brown stripe on the caterpillar is narrow, winter will be cold and long. According to this little guy photographed today, we appear to be in for a mild time of things. The forecast is no doubt as accurate as those provided by Wiarton Willie. Regardless, this creature is able to manufacture its own anti-freeze and stop its heart before freezing solid during the winter. When spring arrives it thaws out and through metamorphosis, becomes a pupa and then a moth. Incredibly the Arctic version of the Wooly Bear Caterpillar needs several seasons to gather enough food to become mature enough to pupate.

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