Woolly Bear Caterpillar Life Cycle: From Egg To Moth

In this article, we shed some light on the woolly bear caterpillar life cycle and explain what this caterpillar becomes when it finally grows up.

There are a lot of myths attached to the different insects scattered throughout the world. One such myth is connected to the woolly bear caterpillars.

People in many parts believe that they can be used to predict the intensity of the upcoming winters.

Woolly Bear Caterpillar Life Cycle

This entire idea is based on the body color and patterns of stripes on these insects. But can they actually predict the weather?

To get this answer, we must learn more about the woolly bear caterpillars and especially understand their life cycle and how it is impacted by weather.

In this article, we talk about this and also find out if the stories and myths are true.

What Are They?

Woolly bears are the caterpillar form of the Isabella tiger moths (Pyrrharctia isabella). These caterpillars usually have a black-colored body with a reddish-brown band in the middle.

The body color changes according to the worm’s age and feeding intensity. Moreover, their bodies are almost entirely covered with a dense coat of fine hair.

In the United States, there are eight types of caterpillars that have dense hair coats on the body, and all of them are types of woolly bear caterpillars.

They have a wide variety of names, including banded woolly bears and fuzzy caterpillars.

You are most likely to spot these insects during autumn when they leave the food plants and search for warmer spots to hibernate throughout the winter.

Woolly Bear Caterpillar

What is Their Life Cycle?

A fully grown 1.5-inch fuzzy bear caterpillar becomes an Isabella tiger moth.

When winter arrives, the woolly bears usually creep into warm spots to hibernate throughout the winter.

Once the cold subsides, these caterpillars wake up from hibernation, and they spend a few nights feeding and gaining strength.

They eat leaves of flowering plants during this time and go through five instar stages of growth.

After that, they begin the pupating process. It takes around two weeks for the adult moths to come out of the pupa.

The adults are orange-yellow in color with a 2-inch wingspan. There are no markings on the wings, but you can spot three rows of black dots in the abdomen.

During the adult stages, these moths do not usually feed; they spend a few days in mating and laying eggs.

After this, they die. In a span of two weeks, the new batch of eggs hatches, and the cycle continues.

Woolly Bear Caterpillar

Where Are They Found?

Wolly bear caterpillars are found across the different regions of the United States, Mexico, and Canada.

Usually, these insects hatch twice a year, and you can spot them as an adult during spring when they emerge out of the pupa.

During winters, these caterpillars are often found hibernating in secluded, warm spots like rocks, fallen logs, and more.

During April-May, you can spot the cocoons of these insects in the same remote areas.

What Do They Eat?

Woolly bear caterpillars are predominately herbivores. They consume plants, herbs, and other food items. Given below are a few foods that these caterpillars eat:

Herbaceous plants

Woolly bears feed on low-growing plants that bear seeds. They prefer to eat leaves rather than eating blades of grass.

Plants like yellow dock, curly dock, clovers, dandelions, and violets are some of the plants that they love to eat.

At times they also eat leafy vegetables like spinach, sunflowers, cabbage, and more.

Grass, grains, and forb

If there are no leaves present, these insects shift to eating blades like grass, maize, barley, etc. However, they don’t feed on grass or other blades that have lost their green color.

Trees and tannins

At times the woolly bears can go top of trees to graze on leaves. They like to taste elm, maple, and birch tree leaves, but they often drift away from ornamental trees.

Woolly Bear Caterpillar

Woolly Bear Myth: Winter Predictors

The color and appearance of these insects are not the only fascinating thing about them; there are a bunch of myths attached to the woolly bear caterpillars.

People believe that these worms can predict the intensity of the upcoming winters.

If one finds a woolly bear caterpillar with a wide brown patch in the middle, the region will experience a soothing and mild winter.

However, if the caterpillar is entirely black, the winter will be harsh.

This myth is wrong, as the color of the body depends on the age and the feeding intensity of the caterpillar and has nothing to do with the oncoming winter.

In fact, if anything, it shows how well the caterpillar fed in the last season, and therefore it indicates how harsh or mild the previous winter was.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does a woolly bear stay a caterpillar?

Usually, these caterpillars live for around two to four weeks before turn start pupating, but in some cases, the process can be much longer than this.
For example, the Arctic woolly worms take almost 14 years to complete this process.

Where do they go in the winter?

Woolly bear caterpillars often search for secluded and warm spots before the winter. Once winter hits, they shift to these places and start hibernating to be able to survive the winter.
Crevices of rocks and abandoned logs are some of the top spots these worms choose for the winter.

How do you keep a woolly bear caterpillar alive?

Woolly bear caterpillars need a lot to eat; therefore, if you want to keep them alive, you must keep supplying fresh leaves constantly to them.
Since it is not practical to get fresh leaves every time, you can keep their food leaves in a plastic bag stored in a jar of water and put it in the refrigerator. This will keep them fresh.

What month do woolly bear caterpillars come out?

The woolly caterpillars usually come out during the months of summer. However, there are two generations of these caterpillars that come out during the year.
The first batch comes out during the months of June and July, which is followed by the next set that comes out in September.
Woolly Bear Caterpillar

Wrap Up

Woolly bear caterpillars are usually tough to spot as they spend most of their time in the hibernation and pupation stages.

But if you understand their life cycle, you can know the exact time to spot these worms. Also, since they emerge as adults at two different times of the year, there is a higher chance of spotting as adult tiger moths.

We hope the article helped you understand the life cycle of these caterpillars. Thank you for taking the time to read it.

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

    View all posts
  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

    View all posts

17 thoughts on “Woolly Bear Caterpillar Life Cycle: From Egg To Moth”

  1. Hey! This was an informative post. I captured one of these little ladies because she was striking. She proceeded to lay about 300 eggs over a period of days. In fact she managed to escape from my container on the second night and laid some eggs high on a wall. I found her, thinking it was a different one, on the floor so I brought her back. Anyway it has been long enough, about a week and the little ones are coming out. I don’t know what they eat. And I don’t know their life cycle. I tossed in some mint leaves and blades of grass and the first batch of tiny caterpillars fell off the napkin where they had been laid onto the bottom of the container. What do your do? The ones which were laid on the wall near the porch light? Do they eventually drop/crawl to the ground to begin feasting on plants? Do these critters overwinter and where do the pupate?

    Reply
    • According to Charles Hogue in Insects of the Los Angeles Basin: “The mature larva is about 1 1/2 inches (40 mm) long and is densely covered with stiff black hairs; The head is black. The caterpillar feeds nocturnally on a great variety of weedy plants, including wild radish, Wandering Jew, and Acanthus. It hides during the day, sometimes retreating into the soil, and it rolls into a ball when disturbed, It develops during the winter and then is somewhat dormant (although active, it does little feeding) until late the following summer, when it pupates; on a warm fall evening, the adult emerges. Individual caterpillars occasionally pupate immediately after maturing and pass the summer in the pupal stage.”

      Reply
  2. Have you any experience with them? The little caterpillars emerged at the same time and remained within their cluster till I threw in some food in which they were knocked off the paper towel where they were laid. I have a second group that emerged late last night and are still in their cluster, about 20 hours post hatching. The first group remained in their cluster for at least 48 hours before they fell off. Many are feeding on the plants I threw in, some have climed up the eclosure.

    Reply
  3. Last year 1 Painted Tiger moth came and laid eggs on our front door. Now we have 3 but only 1 (could be same as last year) is laying eggs, for now. Once the caterpillars hatch they will fall onto concrete and have a long way to go to dirt . Can we carefully pick the eggs off the door (once mother is gone) into a small container then drop in the surrounding flower beds once hatched? Please advise.

    Reply
    • The egg laying moth from this year is not the same individual as the one you had last year. The first meal of the caterpillar is part of its egg shell. Though it has some distance to wander, the newly hatched caterpillars are quite capable of finding food. You should not attempt to dislodge the eggs. They may get damaged. If you want to try to locate caterpillars that have hatched, handle them with care.

      Reply
  4. It looks like the Delicate Cycnia Moth caterpillar.

    Here in New Jersey they’re very common, you don’t usually find just one unless it’s crossing a path somewhere.

    Their color varies just a little bit.
    They also can be a dark grey and their face is very close to the same color as the color of the caterpillar in the picture.

    Reply
  5. I found one of these on my milkweed. I saw caterpillar droppings and was hoping to find a monarch caterpillar. Instead, I found this. I live in southeast Michigan. Is this a beneficial insect or a pest?

    Reply
  6. I had a moth lay eggs on the back passenger side fender of my jeep, they were bluish grey in color pictures attached dont show correct color, is it unusual for them to lay eggs on a vehicle that is driven everyday??

    Reply
    • Certain species of Tiger Moths are opportunistic, and they will lay eggs in many unusual places. The caterpillars hatch and begin feeding on the egg shells before dispersing in search of appropriate feeding locations, and since many Tiger Moths are general feeders rather than being limited to a specific plant, the female is not compelled to locate suitable food plants when laying her eggs.

      Reply

Leave a Comment