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Do berries lead to cold holly days?

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Red, fat holly berries are plentiful this year. Does that mean a cold winter? The Star Democrat asked an expert at George's Green Thumb & Landscape Garden Center in Easton. Her answer did not favor old wives.

"The old wives' tale says they do (predict cold weather), but I don't know if there's any fact to it," said George's Green Thumb staffer Trish Worm. "You'll see right now the holly trees are just loaded with berries this fall. But was it because we had a warmer spring and the pollination was up? Or is it really true that the berries come on because it's going to be a colder winter putting the berries on to protect their species. Last year, they had lots of berries, but it really wasn't a bad winter."

The National Weather Service Forecast Office in State College, Pa., says this winter will be an ENSO neutral winter season. El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO, aka El Niño) is a global ocean-atmosphere phenomenon created by temperature fluctuations in surface waters of the tropical Eastern Pacific Ocean. The equatorial Pacific region currently shows a mix of near normal sea surface temperatures. NWS predicts a 90 percent probability of ENSO neutral conditions persisting over the coming season.

What does that mean? Recent weather patterns indicate ENSO neutral winters are generally colder-than-normal and snowier-than-normal.

Have you seen abundant acorns, bees building their nests higher than normal, larger and unusual spider webs, and more arachnids entering your home? They too may be predicting a cold winter.

"Numb's the word," says the 192-year-old Farmers Almanac, which claims an accuracy rate of 80 to 85 percent for its forecasts, based on mathematics and astronomy. The forecasts are prepared two years in advance. The 2009 Farmers Almanac says at least two-thirds of the country can expect colder-than-average temperatures this winter, with only the Far West and Southeast in line for near-normal readings. The coldest temperatures will occur in mid-December, early January, and early February. The snowiest periods will be in early and mid-December, early January, early and late February, and early March.

Skiers could see favorable conditions this year. An article on dcski.com by amateur meteorologist Ed Fowler predicts the coldest winter in five years.

That's not good news for homeowners as a colder-than-normal winter means higher heating costs.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that households heating primarily with natural gas are expected to spend an average of $155 (18 percent) more this winter. Households heating with heating oil can expect to pay an average of $449 (23 percent) more this winter. Households heating with propane can expect to pay an average of $188 (11 percent) more this winter, and those heating with electricity can expect to pay an average of $89 (10 percent) more.

Who are we to believe: government or woolly worms?

Despite scientific evidence discrediting any super weather-predicting power for the woolly bear caterpillar, there's no denying people believe in their prognosticating power. Banner Elk, N.C., for instance, hosts an annual festival complete with a woolly worm race. The winner is declared the official predictor of winter weather.

Unlike other butterflies or moths, the woolly worm spends the winter as a caterpillar, not a pupa or chrysalis. The hairs covering their bodies are thought to offer insulation from cold winter temperatures. When the weather warms in the spring, the banded wooly worm becomes active again. They feed for a short time, pupate, and emerge a few weeks later as adult Isabella tiger moths.

Folklore says that if a woolly worm caterpillar's brown stripe is thick, the winter weather will be mild, and if the brown stripe is narrow, the winter will be severe. Some people also insist that the thickness of the hairs is the predictor thick hair equals a bad winter, sparse hair a mild one.

Biologists are not amused. They say hatchlings from the same group of eggs can display considerable variation in their color distribution and the brown band tends to grow with age.

Scientists don't impress the folks at WoollyWorm.com. They say over the last 20 years the worms have an 85 percent record for accuracy. There are 13 segments in a typical banded woolly worm one segment for each week of winter.

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