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A blog focused on nature, science, environmental topics, and happenings at the Pocono Environmental Education Center (PEEC).

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident 

Those moths that circle outdoor lighting in the spring and summer are Isabella tiger moths. They evolved to navigate using the moon as a fixed point. Then humans constructed little electric moons everywhere. The moths were confused, and now circle the light that once guided them. Pretty existential for a moth. They mate, lay eggs and die within a week. Their larva is the wooly worm or bear. 

Folklore says that the severity of the coming winter can be predicted by the colors of wooly worms. The more brown, the milder the winter. More black means colder. In fact these colors do not predict the future but recall the past. The milder the previous winter, the earlier these caterpillars are born. The older the caterpillar, the more brown it will display. Several small, mostly mid-western towns have fall festivals where wooly worms undergo careful examination, followed by a prognostication on the coming winter. 

Wooly worms are meek, even by caterpillar standards. They roll into a ball when threatened. They are not venomous. They spend the winter completely frozen, most often finding shelter under rocks or dead wood. They are not fussy eaters but do not threaten plants because not enough of them survive to be considered a pest. 

Within their meekness, however, there is one brief moment of danger and drama. In the fall, as they seek their winter sanctuaries, they will travel long distances, exposing themselves to footsteps on sidewalks, or birds in meadows. One sees more wooly worms in the open in a few weeks of the fall than all the rest of the year. 

This is the great wooly worm challenge. Those that succeed metamorphose to circle summer’s lights, mate and propagate. Do the moths have an appreciation that their earlier selves risked everything for them? That so many did not survive? Does the moth know how lucky it is to have the opportunity to crash again and again into the sconce on my deck? Is dreaming of circling that light what motivated the wooly worm to cross that vast expanse of sidewalk?

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