How to care for woolly bear caterpillars

Your place to find out all about worms, caterpillars, and other (not so) creepy crawlies.

How to care for woolly bear caterpillars

Today we will discuss a message we received from one of our readers, “I found one all curled up in the driveway on a very cold winter day. I brought it in and it is living. But I don’t know what to feed it. I put a leaf from a house plant with it. I want to keep it until spring so that I can turn him loose to go about woolly worm business.”

Although the beginning of the message doesn’t explicitly state what creature she found, at the end of the message she mentions the specimen getting back to “woolly worm business.” Since she didn’t send a photograph of the creature to verify (the featured photo is from a previous reader), we will have to assume that she is indeed caring for a woolly worm caterpillar.

Woolly worm caterpillars are completely covered in hair. They have black hair on their posterior and anterior ends, and brown hair in the middle of their bodies. These caterpillars can survive in cold temperatures thanks to a natural organic antifreeze that they create, as well as choosing protective shelters such as underneath logs, boulder, and rocks. The antifreeze it creates will protect the woolly worm in extremley cold temperatures, and the caterpillar will remain in this frozen state until May when it will emerge as a colorful moth!

Woolly worms eat a variety of plants including cabbage, spinach, grass, and clover. The caterpillar protects itself by curling up into a ball and exposing only its bristles, which can irritate skin. Therefore, our reader shouldn’t directly touch the woolly worm she has brought in from the cold.

In some cultures, people believe that the severity of winter can be predicted by the intensity of the black portions of the caterpillar. If the woolly worm has more brown on its body than black, it will apparently be a fair winter. However, if the worm has more black on its body than brown, then the winter is predicted to be particularly harsh.

To wrap up, one of our readers discovered a woolly worm caterpillar on her driveway. If she wants to keep this caterpillar alive, she can feed it some of the greens we listed above.

Although some caterpillars have stinging hairs which can be quite painful to the touch, woolly bears are safe to touch. When handled, woolly bears curl up into a tight fuzzy ball and “play dead”. The banded woolly bear actually has 13 segments; the bands at either end are black and the middle ones are reddish-brown.

Can you pick up woolly bear?

Since they are safe to handle, easy to take care of, and popular with children, they are an ideal insect to keep and observe throughout the winter and spring! Where can I find Woolly Bear caterpillars? They can be found in lawns, shrubs, or on sides of houses. You can pick them up gently with your hands.

Can wooly bear caterpillars live inside?

If you find a Woolly Bear caterpillar or a silk moth cocoon in the winter, do not bring it inside.

Do anything eat woolly bear caterpillars?

PREDATORS (WHO EATS THEM): Predators of the woolly bear are birds, shrews, toads, frogs, beetles, spiders, skunks, and snakes. LIFE CYCLE: Woolly bears start as little eggs, then grow into fuzzy caterpillars. These caterpillars form cocoons in the spring which then hatch into moths in the summer.

What is the lifespan of a woolly bear caterpillar?

The rest of their lives are spent frozen and dormant. The woolly bear caterpillar’s life-span is up to 14 years, the longest life-cycle of any butterfly or moth. During the winter, the Arctic Woolly bear caterpillar freezes and becomes dormant.

Where do you place a wooly bear caterpillar?

Woolly bear caterpillars need a cold environment to thrive. You should keep the container in a secure location outdoors. Something like a garage or shed near your house is a safe place to keep your caterpillar.

How long does a woolly bear live?

The woolly bear caterpillar’s life-span is up to 14 years, the longest life-cycle of any butterfly or moth. During the winter, the Arctic Woolly bear caterpillar freezes and becomes dormant.

How long does a woolly bear caterpillar live?

Woolly Bear Caterpillar: The Woolly bear caterpillar lives up to 14 years. Although they have a very long life-span, only a short amount of it is spent as an adult caterpillar/moth. Within 24 hours of becoming an adult, the moth lays eggs and dies.

How long do woolly bear caterpillars stay in cocoon?

between 10 to 15 days
Once a woolly bear has made its cocoon, which it will normally attach to grass or a twig, it will stay inside for somewhere between 10 to 15 days before emerging as an adult Isabella tiger moth.

How do you take care of a woolly bear caterpillar?

Gather a supply of its food plant, put it in a jar of water with a plastic bag secured around the leaves, and keep it in the refrigerator to give the wooly bears fresh food daily. They eat at night and sleep during the day, hiding under the leaves and debris. Peak at night to see how active the caterpillars are!

What does seeing a wooly bear mean?

Woolly Bear Folklore: The position of the longest dark bands supposedly indicates which part of winter will be coldest or hardest. If the head end of the caterpillar is dark, the beginning of winter will be severe. If the tail end is dark, the end of winter will be cold.

How long does it take for the woolly bear caterpillar to turn into?

Once it spins its cocoon it may take from 1 to 3 weeks to emerge as a Tiger Moth. Some Woolly Bears may spin their cocoon and remain inside that over the winter.

How long does a wooly bear live?

What are wooly worms a sign of?

Woolly worms have bands of black and brown across their fuzzy coats. According to weather folklore, the more black on a woolly worm in the fall means a longer, colder, and possibly snowier winter, to come. If there is more brown, especially in the middle of the worm, that’s a sign of a mild winter.

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How to care for woolly bear caterpillars

How to care for woolly bear caterpillars

Woolly Bear Caterpillar (Photo: Graftendno1, Flicker Sharing).

Have you ever wandered around a parking lot, sidewalk, or trail in the fall and seen a Wooly Bear caterpillar? They’re the familiar fuzzy orange and black caterpillars that everyone dodges stepping on and that kids love to pick up and play with.

How to care for woolly bear caterpillars

Adult male Isabella Tiger Moth (Photo: Seabrooke Leckie, Flicker Sharing).

These fuzzy wee beasties are technically called the “Banded Woolly Bear” and they are the larval form of the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). The adult moth isn’t very striking. It has golden-brown wings. They also have faint darker brown lines on their wings and the females have a pinkish-orange hind wing. The nice thing is that the caterpillar isn’t a crop pest and mostly feeds on common deciduous forest trees such as elm, ash, low growing herbs, and other forest plants (they’re not very picky and tend to sat away from gardens).


Now most people have heard the myth that the woolly bear caterpillar can predict winter’s length and intensity based on how much black is on them or how big the orange band is around their middle. This is really an old wives tale because as the caterpillar grows, during each molt (or shedding of its skin) the fuzzy black tips become less and less pronounced and the orange band grows. So, the caterpillar color barometer is really subjective based on which one you found and what molt phase it’s in. Not very reliable if you ask me.

How to care for woolly bear caterpillars

Adult woolly bear caterpillar (Photo: Wiki Commons)

So, seeing all those fuzzy cute woolly bear caterpillars got me to thinking and wondering, if they don’t predict winter, what exactly do they do to over-winter? Where do they go? How do they survive? Seeing as they can’t crawl very far they have to have some strategy to make it through freezing conditions. After all they are found all the way from the Arctic to North America and Mexico.


So what exactly does the woolly bear caterpillar do to stay alive in freezing conditions over the winter? Well, before I can answer that you need to know three important terms:

  • Hibernation— this is a state of inactivity and when the metabolism of an animal slows down (low body temp, heart beat slows, slow breathing, and low metabolic rate).
  • Diapause (similar to hibernation in mammals)— this is a pre-programmed genetically (and hormonally) controlled state of suspended or arrested development inan insect’s life cycle. It can be caused by environmental cues and can occur at any life cycle stage of the insect. It usually occurs in anticipation of unfavorable seasonal conditions. During this time, much like mammalian hibernation, insects go into a slowed metabolic state. Diapause isn’t easily reversible, the insect goes in and stays in until the genetics and environmental conditions signal the body to stop. Insects literally stop growing and metamorphosing too. This is a full stop process.
  • Quiescence- is also insect specific, and is in direct response to environmental conditions. It is not pre-programmed and it’s easily reversible when seasonal conditions become better. This can be a start and stop process, with periods of inactivity punctuated with periods of activity if it gets warm enough.

To break all that down:

-hibernation is for mammals,

-diapause and quiescence is for insects

-diapause is nearly the same thing as hibernation.

-diapause is genetically and hormonally caused

-quiescence is environmentally caused

-diapause can’t be easily reversed but quiescence can be if environmental conditions change

How to care for woolly bear caterpillars

Woolly bear caterpillar (Photo: 1sock, Flicker Sharing).

For a long time scientists weren’t sure if the woolly bear caterpillar used a strategy of diapause or quiescence to survive winter. Scientists from the University of Pennsylvania did some studies of different caterpillars collected in fall and winter and then compared their development and metabolic rates. They found that the woolly bear caterpillar goes into quiescence, hiding under leaf litter and literally going dormant until conditions change. They could wake easily if it got nice outside, unlike their diapausing cousins.

Researchers from Notre Dame did studies on how well the woolly bear caterpillar survived at different freezing and subfreezing temperatures. They found that the caterpillars are very resilient and cold-hardy, even their hemolymph (he-moe-lim-f), which is the insect equivalent of blood, can form ice crystals and they can still bounce back when conditions warm. They even from cryoprotectant (stuff that keeps their hemolymph from freezing and keeps the cold from causing cellular damage) if they are exposed to dehydration and cold suddenly.

How to care for woolly bear caterpillars

Woolly bear caterpillars and a tussock moth caterpillar (Photo: Seabrooke Leckie, Flicker Sharing)

Any way you shake it out the woolly bear caterpillar is pretty incredible. It may not be the winter indicator that everyone thinks about, but its ability to freeze and thaw and to go into quiescence in the winter is pretty amazing. It can literally freeze nearly to death and then thaw back out and be on its way. I kind of wish I could do this and just to into quiescence over the winter then get moving again when things get nice. Maybe someday this won’t be science fiction if we learn from the woolly bear caterpillar.

Your place to find out all about worms, caterpillars, and other (not so) creepy crawlies.

Caring for Woolly Worms isn’t that difficult if you have a few simple tools such as a calendar, a container or cage, and the right feed. Before we discuss how to care for woolly worms, here is a bit of information about woolly worms.

About Woolly Worms

The woolly worm (also spelled “wooly worm”) is actually a caterpillar or the larvae of the Isabella tiger moth. The tiger moth belongs to the arctiidae family, which has 11,000 species of moths around the world. The tiger moth is a beautiful creature with bright colors such as scarlet, yellow, orange, and white and rich hues ranging from black to beige. Equally as bright and beautiful, the woolly worm may have a burnt orange color in the middle and it may be black on both ends. Some woolly worms, however, are completely black or completely brown.

In some parts of the world, it is believed that the severity of the winter can be predicted by the intensity of the black on the Isabella tiger moth’s larvae (caterpillar). In the American Northeast, it is believed that if the woolly worm has more brown on its body than black, it will be a fair winter. If the woolly worm has more black than brown, the winter will be harsh.

The furry woolly worm can be spotted during the fall months in great numbers inching along the ground. While you will notice them in great numbers during the fall months, the woolly worm actually has two life cycles, so they can also be found inching around in June and July.

Woolly worms may look small, but these dazzling creatures have 13 segments and three sets of legs. They have tiny eyes, but they make their way around mostly by feeling around and touching.
Once the woolly worm has found its home for the winter, it will create a natural organic antifreeze that protects the interior of its cells. Everything else will freeze, but the woolly worm will still survive. The antifreeze protects the creature in freezing temperatures that can dip as low as –90 degrees Fahrenheit. The wooly worm is also protected by shelter. It chooses its places to hide wisely. It crawls under logs, boulders, boards, rocks, and other dark places. The woolly worm will remain in its “frozen” state until May, when it will emerge as a brilliantly colored moth.

Prior to settling in for the winter, the woolly worm will survive by eating a variety of plants such as cabbage, spinach, grass, and clover. And to protect itself from predators, the woolly worm will curl up into a ball, exposing only its bristles, which can be quite irritating to the skin.

Also called the “woolly bear,” mostly in New England and the Midwestern United States, the woolly worm has a pretty good weather prediction rate. Scientists would prefer not to acknowledge it, but the woolly worm has a 80-85% accuracy rate for predicting the weather. The worm has held its record for accuracy for more than 20 years.

If you want to see the woolly worm in action, don’t seek them out at night. Remember, worms are nocturnal for the most part, not caterpillars. The woolly worm is very active during the day. It is not uncommon to spot them in groups of hundreds, all of them with one common goal – to find a place to hide.

Caring for Woolly Worms

According to Greg Stack, University of Illinois Extension Educator in Horticulture, “Woolly bear caterpillars overwinter as larva. In the late summer and fall they tend to prefer to feed on either violets or the weed called lambs quarter so what you can do is provide it with those things to feed on. They then start to look for a place to spend the winter. The other requirement in order for this caterpillar to turn into a moth is cold. The cage that you have would be best if it were covered with some type of metal screen instead of fabric netting. The reason for this is that the cage with the caterpillar inside will need to be buried in the ground next to the foundation of the house and then covered with leaf litter. It needs to be left there over the winter and if in a fabric covered cage rodents might get inside and eat the caterpillar. You can think about burying the cage when the weather starts to get cold. Leave the cage in the ground until about late April or Mid May. Dig it up and there should be a pupa inside which will transform into a 1-2 inch white colored moth.”

The woolly bear is a common and well-known caterpillar. Though most people have one kind of woolly bear in mind, there are 8 or more species in the U.S. that could legitimately be called woolly bears because of the dense, bristly hair that covers their bodies. Woolly bears are the caterpillar stage of medium sized moths known as tiger moths.

Life cycle of woollybear caterpillars

The best-known woolly bear is called the banded woolly bear. It is black at both ends and reddish-brown in the middle. The adult is called the Isabella moth. The banded woolly bear is found throughout the U.S., Mexico and southern Canada but not the rest of the world. There are 2 generations of caterpillars each year (May and August) The second generation is the one noticed in late fall when the woolly bears are crossing the roads, usually in great haste as if they have someplace special to go. In fact they are only scurrying to find a sheltered location under dead plant debris, etc. where they will spend the winter as a larva. In the spring they will feed briefly before changing into a cocoon and eventually a moth. Eggs laid by the female moths start the cycle over again.

The adult moth of the banded woolly bear has white wings with scattered black spots. Wingspan is about 2 inches.

The banded woolly bear is the species mentioned in winter-prediction folklore that claims longer the black at the ends of the body, the more severe will be the coming winter. As you might expect, science has debunked this legend by showing the amount of black varies with the age of the caterpillar and the moisture levels in the area where it developed.

This doesn’t stop the good folks of Vermilion, Ohio (west of Cleveland) from holding an annual “Woolly Bear Festival” — claimed to be the largest one-day festival in Ohio. Festivities include a parade, woolly bear races and an “official” analysis of the woolly bears and forecast for the coming winter.

For more information on tiger moths, including rearing instructions, you can visit this page at the Michigan Entomological Society website.

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Adult Isabella tiger moths usually rest with the wings held rooflike over their bodies, or else held flat out to the sides. The forewings are yellow or tan, pointed, and often have faint lines and small dark spots. Hindwings are lighter and are orange in females. The bases of the forelegs are reddish orange.

The larvae of this species are better known than the adults. Called “woolly bears” or “woolly worms,” they are fuzzy with dense, stiff hairs. They are usually black on the ends of the body and rusty red or brownish in the middle. When disturbed, they commonly roll up in a ball. Note that touching the bristles can cause dermatitis in some people.

There are about 60 species of tiger moths in Missouri.

Wingspan: 1¾–2¼ inches.

How to care for woolly bear caterpillars

Habitat and Conservation

Tiger moths are often attracted to lights at night. Based on the caterpillars’ wide range of food plants, this moth could be found almost anywhere that plants grow. In the autumn, woolly bears are commonly seen crossing roads as they search for sheltered places in which to overwinter.

Larvae feed on a wide variety of plants, including maple and elm trees, grasses, sunflowers, clovers, and more.


Common breeding resident.

Life Cycle

Adults fly from early April through September. There are two broods in Missouri. Isabella tiger moths overwinter as full-grown caterpillars and have a remarkable capability to withstand freezing temperatures. They pupate within cocoons made from their hairs and emerge as adults in the spring.

Human Connections

Several woolly bear festivals are held in towns across America. These help local economies and build a sense of community. Folklore has long maintained that the varying widths of the caterpillar’s bands are useful for predicting the harshness of the next winter, adding to this animal’s mystique.

Generally, the folklore goes like this: the wider the rusty-red band, the milder the winter; if it is narrow, the winter will be severe.

Most people do not get a rash from touching the hairy caterpillars of this species, but some people do. Different people may be more or less sensitive to caterpillar hairs, and some caterpillars may be more or less irritating than others.

Note that in other groups of moths, the caterpillars’ hairs or spines can literally sting you, if you touch them. No matter how soft and fuzzy a caterpillar looks, we advise caution if you’re not sure about a caterpillar’s identity, or about your own skin’s sensitivity.

Ecosystem Connections

The caterpillars are herbivores that graze on vegetation. They, like many other moth caterpillars, can be parasitized by wasps that lay their eggs on them and eventually kill them. The adults don’t live very long, but they too can be eaten by predators ranging from spiders to bats.

The amount of black and rusty red on a woolly bear caterpillar is influenced by several factors. Indeed, some of the factors are climatic. For example, wetter than average weather tends to cause longer black bands. Another factor is age: older caterpillars tend to have longer rusty red bands. Individual genetics also plays a role.

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How to care for woolly bear caterpillars

How to care for woolly bear caterpillars

How to care for woolly bear caterpillars

How to care for woolly bear caterpillars

How to care for woolly bear caterpillars

How to care for woolly bear caterpillars

How to care for woolly bear caterpillars

How to care for woolly bear caterpillars

How to care for woolly bear caterpillars

Woolly Bear Caterpillar Hibernation

How to care for woolly bear caterpillarsWoolly bear caterpillars seem to be everywhere these days – creeping across the lawn, along the road when I’m walking the dog, hidden in the wilted cut-back of the perennial garden. Last week I found a woolly bear curled up in a shoe I’d left on the front porch.

These fuzzy, black-and- brown-banded caterpillars seem intent these days to get somewhere. Where that is – and how they know – is a mystery.

“The purpose for their wanderings is not clear,” said Jack Layne, a biology professor and woolly bear researcher at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. “It starts well before they hibernate, so it may be connected to finding food sources.”

Wait – a caterpillar that hibernates? Turns out the black bears aren’t the only ones bulking up for the coming winter and looking for a place to hunker down through the snowy season; the woolly bears are, too.

How to care for woolly bear caterpillarsWoolly bears are the larvae of the Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella), although the caterpillars seem to get all the love. With their name and fuzzy appearance, they are, perhaps, among the most adorable of bugs. When I told my 10-year-old I was writing about woolly bears, she let out an “Awwwww!” on the level normally reserved for such things as fluffy kittens and baby bunnies. This from a kid who despises most things creepy crawly. I think it’s the woolly bear’s setae – the black and rusty-brown bristles that look like fur – that have won her over. She is not the only one beguiled.

“The woolly bear is so beloved by children and adults that it provides a universal childhood connection to nature,” said Dave Anderson, senior director of education for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. “It becomes a kind of rite of childhood to find them; often to move them out of harm’s way and sort of care for them as a charismatic caterpillar. We absolutely need ‘insect ambassadors’ to help keep our childhood sense of wonder alive and healthy.”

All that cuteness, however, belies a certain toughness. These small wanderers don’t fly south as adults or overwinter as pupae like many other moth species. Instead they spend their winters as caterpillars, mostly frozen, tucked away beneath leaves or in some sheltered nook.

In late fall, woolly bears develop what Layne calls “freeze tolerance,” creating a natural antifreeze that allows the caterpillars to spend the winter at below freezing temperatures, while protecting their cells so they can thaw out and carry on come spring’s warmer temperatures. The caterpillar’s setae – those fuzzy-looking bristles – trigger the freezing process on the body surface (away from internal cells) and help protect it from the potential damage of repeated thawing and refreezing as temperatures fluctuate through the winter.

As the weather warms in the spring, woolly bears thaw and return to their wandering ways, eating what plants they can find – they’re not picky – before pupating in cocoons that they craft from their own setae and silk. The adult Isabella tiger moth emerges from the cocoon, generally in early summer, and – if successful at mating – lays eggs that hatch in the late summer or early fall. More southern populations of this species may produce two generations per year, Layne said, but northern populations typically produce a single generation annually.

Perhaps because of their recognizability and the timing of their wanderings, there are several weather-predicting legends attached to woolly bear caterpillars. One is that the direction the caterpillars travel foretells the severity of the winter: if they’re headed south, they’re running away from coming cold; north means winter will be mild. Anyone who’s ever paid attention to the movement of woolly bears likely knows they travel any which way on any given day, so there’s not much merit to that tall tale.

Another prognostic idea suggests the severity of winter can be predicted by the width of the caterpillar’s brown band: a larger band means a milder winter; narrower means winter will be severe. Since the brown band grows wider with each molt the caterpillar completes, it’s really more an indication of age – and, Layne said, sometimes genetics.

At this time of year, woolly bears are on the move, eating just about any growing thing they can find. Perhaps in their captivating wanderings, they’re also looking for that perfect pile of leaf litter to curl into and wait for winter to pass.

Meghan McCarthy McPhaul is an author and freelance writer based in Franconia, New Hampshire. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. Photo of Isabella Tiger Moth courtesy Wikimedia user Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren.

bottom of the container for the caterpillar to sleep under, and after your Bear makes its cocoon, Its brown and black, Woolly Bear Pyrrharctia Isabella Habitat: The Woolly Bear (aka Banded Woolly Bear) can be found in The United States, Southern Canada,

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· Woolly bears are easily found in the fall months seeking out shelter to hibernate in or under, They are caterpillars of the Isabella Tiger Moth