Posts Tagged ‘Pyrrharctia isabella’

On Monday I was really surprised at Occoquan Bay National Wildlife Refuge to photograph my first insect of 2019, a Woolly Bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella). This species overwinters in its caterpillar form and survives being frozen by producing a cryoprotectant in its tissues that protects its cells from damage. It can even be found in Arctic regions.

This caterpillar was unfrozen and moving about, but it is probably too early for it to become a moth. Most of us are used to seeing this caterpillar, which is also known as the Banded Woolly Bear, in the autumn. There is quite a bit of American folklore associated with predicting the severity of the upcoming winter on the basis of the colors and sizes of the stripes on the caterpillar.

Eventually this caterpillar will become an Isabella Tiger Moth, though I suspect few people know its name or could identify it—I think folks are more attracted to the fuzzy caterpillar stage of the insect and its cool name of “Woolly Bear.”

If you want to learn more about how the overwintering Woolly Bear caterpillar and how it survives the winter weather, check out this fascinating article at infinitespider.com entitled The Woolly Bear Caterpillar in Winter.

Woolly Bear

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.


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In between rain showers yesterday, I spotted this Banded Woolly Bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella) at Huntley Meadows Park, my local marshland. Unlike this photographer, most of the wildlife seemed to be taking shelter from the rain, so I was particularly excited when I caught sight of this caterpillar as I was trudging through the wet, calf-high vegetation.

Folklore says that the width of the brown band is an indicator of the severity of the upcoming winter. I can never remember whether a narrow band means a severe winter or the opposite, but Google came to the rescue again and indicated sources that say a narrow band means a colder winter. If that’s right, we may be in for a mild winter, given the size of the broad brown area on this caterpillar. Of course, there is no real scientific basis for this folklore, but it’s probably about as reliable as the weather forecasters in this area, who are notoriously bad in predicting the weather. They claim that we live in a complicated meteorological area.

When I was photographing this caterpillar, I noticed that it had a number of water drops on its “fur” and I was happy to see that I was able to capture them. There is something magical about those little globes of water and light.

Banded Woolly Bear caterpillar

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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We’re starting to get down to the last insects of the season, and fuzzy brown caterpillars are among the few insects that I still see. Some of these are Banded Wooly Bear caterpillars (Pyrrharctia isabella) that supposedly help tell how severe the winter will be, though I confess that I can never remember how you are supposed to judge, i.e. does a wide middle section mean a short winter or a long one?

When I first took this shot, I thought the subject was a wooly bear caterpillar, but the more I look at it the less certain I feel. There seems to be a black tip on only one end of the caterpillar rather than at both ends. Despite the uncertainty about identification, I really like the shot and the way that I was able to isolate the caterpillar from the background.


© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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Looking down in the water, I was a little surprised to see a Banded Wooly Bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella) swimming, albeit not too quickly. He would slowly undulate his hairy body for a stroke and pause, and then repeat the process. It was fascinating to see the little air bubbles surrounding his mouth and the gentle ripples produced by his movement.

This caterpillar will almost certainly overwinter in his current state and pupate in the spring into an Isabella Tiger Moth. Bugguide notes that there are normally two broods, on that pupates in the summer and the other in the following spring. I have looked at some photos of the moth and can’t help but note that the caterpillar stage is a lot more attractive and interesting.

Wooly Bear caterpillar swimming (click for higher resolution)

Wooly Bear caterpillar pauses for a breath (click for higher resolution)

© Michael Q. Powell. All rights reserved.

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