This time of year, some of us start consulting a fuzzy invertebrate about the severity of the forthcoming winter.
The insect that's supposed to know this stuff is the woolly bear caterpillar, the young wiggler form of the Isabella tiger moth. We start taking stock of woolly bears now in part because we're only a relative few weeks from winter.
Mainly, however, woolly bears come to our attention because we're beginning to see them more. As October wears on and drifts into November, the bushy caterpillars are on the move seeking out places to take shelter from the approaching cold season. As they crawl across roads, walkways and other cleared areas, we finally notice them.
Folklore has it that these woolly worms tell us if the winter is going to be harsh, mild or somewhere in between the extremes. I'm not sure the woolly bears are supposed to "know" what they tell us or only display the clues. After all, they are only bugs.
Allegedly, the mix of colors on the caterpillar suggests the forecast. Woolly bears are covered with hair-like spines or bristles that are banded in chestnut brown and black.
According to lore, more black on a woolly bear indicates more cold temperatures and frozen precipitation in the coming winter. Conversely, woolly bears that are mostly brown foretell kinder, gentler winter.
Occasionally, one might find a woolly bear that's all black. If that's the case, you'd have to assume that something like a new ice age is on the way. An all-brown caterpillar, however, would portend that you won't even have to put away your cargo shorts.
I'm here to tell you that some of the woolly bears are right with their forecast. As some humans perceive them, they are accurate just in the same way that a broken clock is perfectly accurate twice a day.
If you'll look at enough woolly bears, you'll find all sorts of variations in their mix of color bands during the same season. Some will be mostly brown, others mostly black, opposite extremes supposedly predicting the same winter ahead.
The forecast? It depends on which woolly bear you ask.
The banding on a woolly bear actually is the result of the worm's aging process, not future weather. Entomologists say the caterpillar molts as it grows, and each time it molts, it sheds its spiny-surfaced skin and ends up with wider bands of brown.
Reality? There are individual differences in caterpillars, of course, but generally the woolly bears that are blacker are the younger ones with less molting in evidence. The more mature woolly bears, those that are largely brown, have more molts under their belt.
Woolly bears can overwinter and live into a second year in caterpillar form. The winged moth that eventually results is the end form of that species.
The best thing about woolly bears is not their mixed messages about winter but rather the joy of catching them -- then letting them go their way -- for kids. The fuzzy exterior of these caterpillars makes them look cuddlier and seem a lot less intimidating than other insects.
A woolly bear won't bite or exhibit any hostile behavior if handled, but some people have complained that the hairs or bristles on that wormy body have stuck in tender skin and resulted in irritation.
I've never been stuck by a woolly bear, but the possibility of that is more reason to handle them gently. No squeezing, please.
I view the woolly bear's weather forecasting abilities in the same light as the meteorological significance of the shape of kernels in split persimmon seeds. That's another bit of nature-based wisdom that folks like to talk about each autumn.
If you can split a persimmon seed (especially difficult when the fruit isn't yet ripe), the transected white kernel or root structure inside will appear in a shape that can be construed to resemble a spoon or, with some imagination, a fork or a knife.
Folklore says a spoon profile in the seed foretells a hard winter, one in which you'll be digging out from lots of snow. A fork shape (although it might look like a plastic "spork" from a fast food restaurant) is supposed to mean a mild winter. But a knife shape is supposed to foreshadow a bitter cold winter with "cutting winds."
Research doesn't suggest much, if any, accuracy in persimmon seed forecasting. Many seed findings suggest snowy conditions, with spoons being found, and some snows do follow in winter. But then, that's kind of what happens occasionally in winter, isn't it?
Once casual study reported a mix of shapes of persimmon seed kernels from the same region one autumn. Half of the seeds examined show spoon shapes, while 21% showed knives. But at the same time, 29% showed fork shapes.
I'm inclined to think that spoon shapes are most common in persimmon seeds because that's just the way persimmon seeds are. But there are variations, too, and none of it has anything to do with future weather.
Weather soothsaying based on some of these natural clues seems to be mostly old wives' tales. But in these gender-sensitive times, you must think that old husbands are equally responsible.
PS … Within 24 hours of writing the above column, I found a completely black woolly bear. We're doomed, I suppose.
Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.