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Oh the lowly Woolly Bear

Michael Hillman

(Dec, 2012) Is it just me, or was there an unusually large number of Woolly Bear caterpillars crossing the roads this fall? From sun up to sun down, you couldn’t go more than 20 feet without seeing one attempting to cross the street.

You’ll notice I italicized the word attempting, as most of them sadly don’t make it. Instead, they fall prey to tires of oncoming cars.

Which brings me to my next question: how many of you slowed down and weaved around the Woolly Bears to give them a break? I’ll be the first to admit, I do— that is, when I can.

When I’m driving on back roads, I find my eyes glued to the road surface, looking for their telltale red striped coloring. When I spot one, I swerve the car left or right to give the Woolly Bear as much clearance as I can. At times I find myself weaving so much that I must look like a down-hill slalom skier, or worse, a drunk!

It would be nice to think that the caterpillars I swerve around, do indeed make it to the other side of the road, but unfortunately, more times than I care to admit, I find myself looking into my rear view mirror to watch the tracks of a car behind me roll over the spot I just weaved at. I do a quick mental calculation— “The Woolly bear is crawling at two feet per minute, the car is 45 seconds behind me... nope, they ran over it.”

I sigh. The next one I come to is just near the yellow line in the center, “OK, you’ll make it.” I think to myself, “at least the next car won’t hit you.” And so it goes the whole length of the road until I get home.

One unusually warm day recently I turned onto Motter Station Road off of Route 15 to discover the road literally swarming with them. For the previous half hour on my drive north on Route 15 I had watched with sorrow the large migration of Woolly Bears attempting to cross the highway, knowing full well that few would ever make it to the grass median. Knowing that I had just passed hundreds of Willy Bears that were now dead, I pulled my car off to the side of the road and got out. I couldn’t help those trying to cross Route 15, but I could help those trying to cross Motter Station Road.

I no sooner picked up the closest to my car when I spotted another 5 feet away. Then another a few feet more, then a pair, then another pair. As I picked them up, they immediately curled up into a ball— which made holding them rather easy. Once I had a handful, I walked to the side of the road and gently placed them safely out of harm’s way.

It would be nice to think that they all continued in the direction they were originally heading, but as I looked at the scene before me, with Woolly Bears headed in every direction imaginable, I cringed at the thought that most of them would probably find the old saying: “the grass is not always greener on the other side of the road” true, and turn around to head back in the direction from which they had come— and once again find themselves in the middle of the road, and at the mercy of the "Michelin Man."

I shrugged my shoulders. By the time they had decided that the side of the road they had been heading toward was not worth the trip, I could have been home and ridden at least one, if not both my horses, not to mention, written this article. So instead, I concentrated my efforts on simply clearing the road of the Woolly Bears that were on it at the time.

More than one driver slowed to look at what I was doing. Some waved and gave me a thumbs-up, others gave me a blank stare as if I were a nut case and went on their way. The former I noted, like me, seemed to make an effort to weave around the plethora of Woolly Bears on the road. The latter crushed more than their fair share of Woolly Bears.

Once the section of the road I was standing on was clear, I started my car and moved it to where I had left off and got out again. For the first 500 yards, each stop yielded easily 25 Woolly Bears. The further I got away from Route 15, the lower the density of Woolly Bears on the road. I have no idea why, it was just something I noticed. Still, I was burning up precious daylight.

It was time for triage.

When no cars were coming, and it was apparent that a Woolly Bear would make it to the side of the road safely, I left them to fend for themselves. But if they were in the middle of the road, or just starting to cross the road, I pulled next to them and opened the door of the car and scooped them up, placing them gently on the passenger seat next to me. When the seat had filled to capacity, I would stop the car and place all my “passengers” into the grass and resume the operation.

I progressed as fast as I could, but unfortunately couldn’t help them all. I watched in dejection as cars passed me, knowing full well that those that were not swerving were more than likely running over Woolly Bears I might have gotten to in the next few minutes. With each passing car, I redoubled my efforts, trying to pick up as many Woolly Bears as I could. But they were everywhere.

That day, my usual 5-minute drive from Route 15 to my farm took over an hour, and while I missed my opportunity to ride, I didn’t regret it. When I did get home, I scooped out those that I had picked up along the road in front of my farm and carried them out into the far corner of the pasture. Even if they had wanted to try to re-cross the road, it would take them days to find it again, and maybe, just maybe, I thought, they might find a nice warm spot to curl up for the winter.

In spite of all my efforts the evening before, I found Motter Station teaming with Woolly Bears as I left for work the next morning. While I would have liked to have stopped to help each and every one of them, I couldn’t imagine my boss accepting that as an acceptable excuse for not showing up for work that day, or the day after, or the day after that.

I wanted to save them all. Instead, I decided to save as many as I could. Every day when I returned home from work, I would walk down the road in front of my farm and scoop up those daring to cross the road. On the return trip back to the house, I scooped up those that had started to cross after I passed by the first time. Some days I only saved a few, other days my bag of Woolly Bears was overflowing.

Ironically, in spite of all the time I spent saving them, it never really occurred to me to inquire what they look like once they become butterflies. I was hoping they would be something beautiful, but they are not. Instead, they turn into plain old simple moths. But I discovered that they do have an interesting life cycle.

According to Wikipedia: “The moth Pyrrharctia isabella is known by different common names at its two main life stages. The adult is the Isabella Tiger Moth and the larva is called the Banded Woolly Bear. The Woolly Bear larva emerges from the egg in the fall and overwinters in its caterpillar form, when it literally freezes solid. First its heart stops beating, then its gut freezes, then its blood, followed by the rest of the body. It survives being frozen by producing a cryoprotectant in its tissues. In the spring it thaws out and emerges to pupate. Once it emerges from its pupa as a moth it has only days to find a mate before it dies.”

Not exactly a life to write home about. You’re born, you freeze, you thaw out, then you die. Oh well, at least they look cute when they are caterpillars... cute enough for this old writer to enjoy taking a few minutes every day to help a few of them out. After all, if I were a Woolly Bear, I would hope someone would look out for me.

In the end, we are all God’s creatures, and we all share the same planet. When possible, we all need to look out for each other or there will be no one to look after us.

Read other stories by Michael Hillman