A giant leopard moth seen from above (credit D. Pifer) .
What do the giant woolly bear and the great leopard moth have in common? Quite a lot, it turns out.
This time of year, you’re very likely to see a giant woolly bear — a black, fuzzy caterpillar that turns into the great or giant leopard moth. A giant woolly bear is very much like the black and brown fuzzy caterpillar that’s become famous in folklore as a winter weather forecaster. According to the Farmer’s Almanac, a woolly bear that has more black than brown means a long winter ahead. But a giant woolly bear is all black, always. If you follow the folklore, this might be an awfully bad winter.
The other day I found a giant woolly bear in our cellar. It quickly rolled itself into a tight ball and then the orange-red skin showed between the rows of bristles. The black bristly hairs are arranged in clusters or rosettes, which make it hard to uncurl the caterpillar, thus protecting it from enemies. Some people may get a rash from touching the bristles, but otherwise the insect is harmless.
Not as common as the banded caterpillars, giant woolly bears are bigger — about two inches long — and rather more sedate, not scurrying around as frantically as their lighter colored cousins. Unlike many moths that spend the winter in a snug silk cocoon, woolly bears overwinter as caterpillars. You might find one hiding in your wood pile or among dead leaves.
In spring, the giant woolly bear spins a silken cocoon and goes dormant. Toward the beginning of summer, a dramatically spotted moth emerges from the cocoon. The giant or great leopard moth is a truly beautiful insect.
Wings, body and legs are covered with shaggy white scales. The moth looks as if cloaked in immaculate white fur. The body and wings are marked with dramatically contrasting black spots. These may appear as open circles and ovals or closed spots and polka dots. Some individuals have bold dots and heavy black markings, while others have finer lines with fewer spots and stripes. Just behind the head and seen from the front, a pair of large spots, glossed with iridescent blue-green, give the impression of a skull with glittering eyes. When the moth opens its wings, the abdomen is marked with dark, iridescent blue-green spots with some orange markings. Even the legs are banded black and white, with black areas showing the same blue-green iridescence found elsewhere on the body.
Interestingly, these moths have well developed ears on the base of the abdomen. Scientists think these may help moths detect and avoid the echo-location sounds emitted by moth-hunting bats. Glands behind the moth’s head emit an acrid smelling liquid to discourage hungry predators.
Black woolly bears aren’t picky and eat the leaves of willow, cabbage, maple, violet, nettle, plantain, and other common plants. But adult leopard moths are seldom seen, possibly because of their nocturnal habits and lifespan of only a few weeks.
White moths carry folklore as do their black caterpillars. Native Americans regard a white moth as a harbinger of good news from the spirit world and changes for the better. So, might a bad winter be followed by a lovely spring? I’ll take this optimistic symbolism with me as we approach the close of the year.
Doug Pifer is an artist, naturalist, and writer. He has a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Penn State and has been an editor and art educator. His illustrations have appeared in various books and magazines and he has been a contributor to The Observer for several years. He lives with his wife and assorted animals on 5.7 acres in a historic farmhouse near Shepherdstown.By Doug Pifer