Beware the caterpillar

By Suzanne Seryck, Master Gardener

Fall is my favourite time of the year to bicycle; not too hot and the scenery on trails in the Kawartha Lakes is beautiful. Asters and golden rod are in full bloom; the sumacs and Virginia creeper are just turning red, whilst the maple trees are slowly turning various shades of orange, yellow, red and brown. My only problem is trying to miss all the caterpillars, grasshoppers, and chipmunks, not to mention the odd rabbit or snake that crosses my path. I can’t count the number of times I have almost ended up in a ditch.  Everything mostly jumps or slithers out of my way, though, with the exception of the woolly bear caterpillars.

Photo taken by author whilst out riding

You would think that these caterpillars would be fairly easy to spot, but at this time of year, and probably at my age too, I tend to have problems distinguishing them from leaves, especially from a distance. The caterpillars normally emerge around this time of year, slowly inching their way across the paths.

Picture of woolly bear caterpillar (taken by author)

The woolly bear caterpillar will emerge from its larva in the fall, and overwinter in its caterpillar form. It does this by finding a safe spot to hibernate under leaves or bark or inside rocks or logs and then freezing solid. It is able to survive being frozen by producing a cryoprotectant, which is a substance that protects its tissue from freezing. The search for a safe hibernation spot is why you see so many of these caterpillars crossing roads and paths.

In the spring the caterpillar will wake up hungry, eat for a few days and then spin a cocoon emerging after a couple of weeks into an Isabella Gypsy Moth.

There are many old wives tales that specify that the size of the brown bands in the middle of the caterpillar or the number of brown bands will determine how hard a winter we will have. This was investigated in 1948 by Dr. C. H Curran who was the Curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. To read more about this, please refer to the following article: https://www.almanac.com/content/woolly-bear-caterpillars-and-weather-prediction

Whilst I eagerly await the time when all the caterpillars have finished crossing roads and paths and begun their hibernation, I will continue my daily bike rides looking down at the paths whilst attempting to ensure that I do not cycle into any more ditches.

For additional information, the following is an interesting article: https://blogs.massaudubon.org/yourgreatoutdoors/why-did-the-woolly-bear-cross-the-road/

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