Who cares for woolly bears?

December 03, 2006

For hire: weather prognosticator; fuzzy and cuddly; good at mulching leaves and curling into a ball; available in autumn only; has a tendency to become flighty; for references, contact Punxsutawney Phil.

The woolly bear is neither wool nor bear. It is a caterpillar that begins life as a tiny egg and departs this world as a yellow-brown Tiger Moth. In between, it wears a mink-like coat, ambles about in search of patches of sunlight and, according to American folklore, forecasts the coming winter meteorology with variances in the width of its distinctive black and orange bands.

No one knows how or when the woolly bear came to be a popular - if not always reliable - weather bug. But one thing's certain: The caterpillar's cache isn't what it used to be. Quietly and without ceremony, the woolly bear's predictions have been dropped from the pages of the latest J. Gruber's Hagers-Town Town and Country Almanack, the country's second oldest continuously published periodical.

Some readers of the 2007 edition are understandably upset by the woolly bear's sudden disappearance. But don't blame the publication's staff. For 23 years, the Almanack championed the humble insect through a contest with cash prizes awarded to Washington County school children whose caterpillar entries topped the "biggest and hairiest" and "cutest and cuddliest" categories. In past contests, judges had to examine and measure nearly 1,000 woolly bears.

Interest in the competition has waned dramatically. Last year only 20 caterpillars were entered and with so few woolly bears on hand, the Almanack wasn't able to get sufficient information to proffer a winter forecast. Why more children don't care about woolly bears is unclear, but we suspect the situation has something to do with game consoles, iPods and cell phones.

The Almanack still relies on a university professor for its more serious forecasts (this winter, colder and snowier than last year's). And the publication says it may try to return the caterpillar's weather skills in the next issue. The challenge is getting enough kids to step outside into the crisp autumn air and enjoy their natural surroundings. Parents ought to encourage children to do it - for the woolly bears.

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