MIKE WAGONER

MIKE WAGONER

Blasts of winter weather should arrive right on schedule this year in the Banner Elk community in the North Carolina mountains. The first four weeks of winter are expected to feature colder than normal temperatures and snow.

That is the official prediction from the 2020 woolly worm resident weather forecaster. The woolly worm is the larva of the Isabella tiger moth. Its range includes almost all of the United States.

Therefore, the woolly worm caterpillar’s magical powers extend into coastal North Carolina as well. Surely, mountain temperatures may differ somewhat from the coastal region, but Carteret County falls “under the same magical spell.”

So, bundle up for some cold winters’ nights coming our way beginning in late December.

The annual Woolly Worm Festival – a social highlight of the year in Banner Elk – normally held on the third weekend of October, had to be cancelled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Undaunted by adversity, the festival sponsors declared the “race must go on,” in order to preserve a 43-year tradition.

According to custom, the “speediest woolly worm” earns the honor of being the upcoming winter season’s “chief pseudo-meteorolgist.”

Although not everyone recognizes the woolly worm as an accredited weather forecaster, the festival sponsors proclaim an 80-87% accuracy rate.

The 2020 race was extremely scaled back for safety reasons with just two competing woolly worms, instead of a few thousand.

With just a few socially distanced spectators looking on, “Chamber Charger,” representing the Avery County Chamber of Commerce, took on “Kiwanis Kicker” from the Kiwanis Club of Banner Elk.

Charger won by a length (about a single bushy eyebrow). Charger was trained and groomed by Hallie Tucker Willis of Mountain Community Bank in Sugar Mountain. She is the current chair of the Avery chamber.

Local celebrity Tommy Burleson, the “official woolly worm interpreter,” has the ability to decode the 13 bands or segments of the woolly worm’s body that correspond to the 13 weeks of winter.

In general, black bands mean “cold and snowy” and rusty-brown bands mean “mild without snow.”

Burleson’s interpretation of Charger’s bands was influenced by unusual “fleckings” of both black and rusty-brown that appear in Charger’s mid-section. Here it is – Charger’s winter forecast:

n Weeks 1-4: Cold and heavy snow.

n Weeks 5-7: Mild and light snow.

n Week 8: Cold and light snow.

n Weeks 9-10: Mild and light snow.

n Week 11: Cold and light snow.

n Weeks 12-13: Cold and heavy snow.

During autumn, thousands of woolly worms can be observed scurrying about on the ground, feeling their way in search of sheltered areas to hunker down for winter – under logs, boulders or structures.

Entomologists say the woolly worm “creates a natural organic antifreeze (cryoprotectant) that insulates its interior cells, so it can survive harsh and frigid winters.”

In May, the insect will emerge from its cocoon, transformed into a colorful Isabella tiger moth, somewhat yellowish, orange and tan with black accent markings.

There’s a technique to “handling winning woolly worms.” Some of the best racers through the years have been “Wild Worm Will,” “Woolly Nelson,” “Woolly Wonka,” “Twinkle Toes” and “Dale Wormhardt.”

The next Woolly Worm Festival is set for Oct. 16-17, 2021. The official black and rusty brown woolly worm mascot, “Merryweather,” wants to give you a soft hug.

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