I always look forward to the insects of October, or the late-season insects. This is when some of the really cool guys hang around. Sure, you have crickets and nuisance spiders trying to get into your house, but I’m talking about the harmless, less troublesome, special insects.
Woolly bear caterpillars are one of these fun insects. Ask almost any preschooler what they think about Woolly bears and you’re sure to see their face light up. (Some of us never outgrow it!) In case you don’t know, the Woolly bear or “woolly worm” has 13 distinct segments of either rusty brown or black color. I’m sure you’ve heard people say, “If the brown color band is wide, then it will be a mild winter. The more black there is, the more severe the winter will be”. The lore says the 13 segments of a Woolly Bear caterpillar represents the 13 weeks of winter.
Back in 1948, Dr. C. H. Curran, curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, took his wife and went to Bear Mountain State Park to look at the caterpillars. Some people think this was just an excuse to have fun. Anyway, he collected as many caterpillars as he could find to see if he could predict the coming winter weather. He told a reporter friend about what he was doing and his friend published it in The New York Herald Tribune. He, his wife, and a group of friends calling themselves The Original Society of the Friends of the Woolly Bear, escaped to Bear Mt. each fall for the next eight years to “study” the Woolly bears. It’s said that these events made the Woolly bear one of America’s most recognizable caterpillars. Reasoning would confirm that there’s a bit of truth to the prediction because in mild years the caterpillar emerges sooner and may be active longer, which causes the brown band to grow wider. Some claim the Woolly bear is 80-85 percent correct in its predictions.
In the fall Woolly bears are searching for places to over winter. Places like under bark or inside cavities of logs are always ideal. That’s why you see so many of them crossing roads and sidewalks during autumn. Woolly bears spend the winter in a kind of “hairy” frozen stage until they begin to change and transform into white moths with little dark spots. At this stage of life they’re known as tiger moths. They feed on a large variety of plants, but because the feeding is so late in the year and so minimal, nobody worries about it. Did you know that there’s an annual Woolly Worm Festival held in Banner Elk, North Carolina? It draws thousands of Woolly bear fans, and includes Woolly bear races, several venders, food, music and fun for all. I guess I’m not the only one who loves them.
The praying mantis is another cool insect that is actually around all summer but I always seem to see more of them in the fall. Maybe this is because it’s the time of year when she deposits her eggs on a twig or side of a building. She then produces a Styrofoam-like substance where the eggs will develop and over winter. Sad as it seems, she will die after this. In the meantime, I enjoy watching them as I work in the garden while they watch me. My daughter doesn’t share my thoughts though. Just last week she told me about a three-inch long mantis that chased her across the yard and into the house while she ran flailing her arms and screaming. I’m actually sorry I missed that. This is not usually the case though. If you don’t bother them they do nothing more than ignore you or keep an eye on you to make sure you are not going to hurt them. I know it can be creepy when they turn their head around like an owl, but it’s also kind of interesting. I actually don’t think of mantids as all that beneficial because they will eat any insect that crosses their path. But that’s part of the problem. They don’t go very far out of their way to eat a pesky bug. They wait until it comes to them. Nonetheless, the egg cases should be preserved so the eggs can hatch next spring. So if you see an egg case let it be. There’s really no reason to remove it.
The coolest spiders show up in the fall. The cat-faced orb weaver spider Araneus gemmoides is one great spider. It kind of looks like a little tan ball that many people describe as looking like a “cats face” because of the projections on its abdomen, dimples and markings. Apparently I’m not the only one who enjoys these harmless beneficial spiders because this month CSU in Fort Collins is having the 11th Annual How-Big-Is-Your-Cat-faced Spider Contest. You have to take your spider to the university for weigh in, and then they will return it to the handler. They’re even offering a prize for the biggest one! Yes, they can bite if provoked but it won’t hurt you. Just handle them with care.
Argiope trifasciata Forsskal is a large spider that’s kind of silver with several thin black and yellow lines across its body. Its long legs are dark yellowish-brown with darker rings. It’s actually pretty good looking as far as spiders go. This spider can catch small grasshoppers and wasps in its nest, which makes it a fantastic spider in my book. They have probably been in your garden since late June. It just seems like I always see more of them in the fall.
With the recent cold snap I hope these great insects are hunkered down and you’ll still have a chance to see them before they’re gone. Even so, the good news is, there will be a new generation to take their place and we’ll be able to enjoy them again next season.
Linda Corwine McIntosh is a Commercial Pesticide Applicator, ISA Certified Arborist, and Advanced Master Gardener.