HAGERSTOWN -- Bookkeeper Cathy Dixon, who readily admits disdain for creepy, crawly things, finds herself in the unusual role as caretaker of woolly bears each October. Sometimes small armies of them.
These colorful caterpillars, often seen scurrying along roads and paths on warm autumn days, are making their seasonal appearances everywhere, including greater Hagerstown, where a local institution's 13th annual "Woolly Bear Contest" is under way.
"I try not to physically handle them," said Ms. Dixon, who works in the office where the critters -- which are about 1 1/2 inches long -- are collected for what, actually, is somewhat of a beauty contest. "We'll be overrun by the end of the month. I've kind of gotten used to them, but I have to say that 'woolly bear keeper' wasn't in the job description."
Folklore has it that the bands of soft, long bristles on the black and reddish-brown caterpillars -- which winter in cocoons before metamorphosing next spring and summer as tiger moths -- foretell the severity of the coming winter.
Generally, the folk wisdom goes, larger black bands mean above-average precipitation and colder days ahead. The wider the reddish-brown middle band, though, the milder the coming winter will be.
So, what are the woolly bears saying about this winter?
"We just can't tell what right now," said Gerald W. Spessard, whose family sponsors the contest and publishes the venerable Hagers-Town Town and Country Almanack, that other well-known (and some times right) prognosticator of weather. "We don't have enough of a sampling for a good [reading]."
Mr. Spessard, an insurance agent and business manager of the 199-year-old almanac, expects hundreds of entries in this year's Woolly Bear Contest. Last year's contest drew 796 entries, about three times more than the year before. Children, as well as some adults, enter their captured specimens of the harmless creature.
Technically, the almanac's contest has nothing to do with
weather predictions. But the contest, in which the "Cutest and Cuddliest" and the "Biggest and Woolliest" win $100 for their captors, provides another means of forecasting. Mr. Spessard said the contest evolved 13 years ago after an Almanack reader suggested the folksy publication look at woolly bears as prognosticators, too.
The publication accurately predicted the cold, snowy, icy -- just plain miserable -- winter of 1993-1994. Its predictions are done 18 months in advance, using information on sunspots, a collection of weather maps and a lunar chart created by English astronomer Sir William Herschel.
During the contest, which began Sunday and runs through Oct. 31, Mr. Spessard doesn't keep hundreds of woolly bears running around his Hagerstown office. Instead, he keeps the best four in each category and turns the others loose "on a lovely farm near Downsville." They're picked up twice a week.
So just how accurate are these furry prognosticators?
"They get it right about 50 percent of the time," Mr. Spessard said. "Last year, their bands predicted a normal winter the first half, and a milder period the second half. Since the Almanack predicted a severe winter last year, the woolly bears did better than the Almanack."
Predictions aside, Mr. Spessard said the contest, which draws a lot of interest from science classes in Washington County schools, is just fun.
"People like it," he said. "We get entries from all over Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania."
Then he added: "We try to discourage people from mailing them. Just bring them to us."
Here's how the Hagers-Town Almanack's predictions of winter weather for the past five years compare with what each year's woolly bears "predicted" and what really happened.
Winter .. .. Almanack .. Woolly bears .. .. Actual winter
'90-'91 . .. Severe . .. Severe .. .. .. .. Mild
'91-'92 . .. Mild ... .. Mild . .. .. .. .. Mild
'92-'93 . .. Mild ... .. Mild . .. .. .. .. Severe
'93-'94 . .. Severe . .. Mild . .. .. .. .. Severe
'94-'95 . .. Severe . .. Mild . .. .. .. .. Mild
'95-'96 . .. Severe . .. Too early to tell. Stay tuned