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If you live in temperate or cold regions of the Northern Hemisphere, perhaps you’ve seen woolly bear caterpillars crossing the road lately. Heathcliff and Freya nose a few during our morning walks, causing the 1.5-inch, 13-segment black and red-brown-orange banded worms to curl into balls.

It is Fall, time for woolly bear festivals with caterpillar races and bristle-furred creatures crawling across highways and footpaths searching for winter protection in bark, logs or rock cavities. In the spring, they’ll continue to eat grasses and other plant species before pupating. Woolly bears, Pyrrharctia isabella, living in the Arctic’s sparse vegetation actually freeze in the winter then thaw for summer feeding, cycling up to 14 years before pupating.

The ability to overwinter is not the woolly bears’ only claim to fame. According to the Farmers’ Almanac’s tongue-in-cheek entry, woolly bears predict the severity of winters. If the middle band is narrow – watch out for Old Man Winter! But if red-brown-orange segments widen to more 5, don’t expect to get much exercise shoveling snow.

Of course, some woolly bears are more talented predictors than others – at least that’s the story – and some middle-band believers think the “prediction” represents last year’s winter.

And yet I wonder how woolly bears, birds and other creatures know the seasons, even the weather. What are they sensing?

Last Saturday, I participated in Don Fry’s Food Writing seminar at Writer House in Charlottesville. One of the topics was food writing with your senses.

“Inventory your sense impressions in the field, in your notebook, and in revision,” Don said. “Remember that senses interact.” Think about temperature, barometric pressure, the weight of clothes and other senses.

When Heathcliff and Freya inventory their territory during these cool mornings, they trot more lively, listen, watch and follow their noses into clumps of grass. Snuffles, huffs and snorts sound as they check footprints and vegetation for creatures – bear, deer, squirrel, another dog – that might have left an ‘artifact,’ and then they leave their own.

Even though dogs shed, I don’t think Heathcliff and Freya predict the weather – they live in the now – and I’m not convinced that woolly bears can either. But if there is any truth to the folklore, the middle bands look about average to me this year. Heathcliff, Freya and I don’t count segments, but we take note.

How are the woolly bears’ middle bands looking in your area? Narrow, wide or average?

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