- The Washington Times - Friday, November 2, 2001

HAGERSTOWN, Md. (AP) Get set to cocoon, just like the woolly bear caterpillars whose markings suggest winter will open on a harsh note.

"It looks like it's going to be bad," Franklin S. Leiter said yesterday after examining the two-tone coats of 72 isabella tiger moth larvae.

The fuzzy caterpillars are folkloric, if not scientific, predictors of winter weather, a notion perpetuated by Mr. Leiter's employer, J. Gruber's Hagers-Town Town and Country Almanack. His forecast wraps up an annual promotion aimed at doing for Hagerstown what Ground Hog Day does for Punxutawney, Pa.

Mr. Leiter said black bands on either end of the caterpillars he examined tended to be wider in the front than in the back. That means the first half of winter will be colder than the second half.

"It's going to be a normal winter in the back, but a bad one to start with for a good while at least the first half or maybe a little longer than that," he said.

His outlook differs from that of the National Weather Service, which predicts sharp swings in temperature this winter, with equal chances of above normal, normal or below-normal in the mid-Atlantic states.

Mr. Leiter missed the mark last year with his prediction for cold temperatures all winter long. Instead, the weather warmed up in January and remained relatively mild the rest of the season.

"I'll have to talk to the woolly bears about that. They're not predicting right," Mr. Leiter said.

Mr. Leiter, 82, has been making the predictions since the almanac launched the woolly bear promotion 14 years ago. The Gruber Almanack Co. offers two $100 prizes for the biggest and cutest woolly bears brought to its Hagerstown office.

Entomologists and meteorologists dismiss woolly-bear weather forecasts as colorful nonsense. Gaye Williams, entomologist with the Maryland Department of Agriculture, said the band widths reflect a caterpillar's age; the larvae start out mostly black and become progressively browner with each molt.

"Folklore persists because somebody says it and somebody listens and that's the bottom line," she said.


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