J.B.S. Haldane, one of the founders of population genetics, is credited with saying, “If one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of creation it would appear that God has an inordinate fondness for stars and beetles.” Like most quotes attributed to famous people, it is probably apocryphal, but the point is valid. There are a lot of Coleoptera species in the world, not as many as there are stars in the sky, but 1 out of 4 animal species in the world is a beetle of some sort.
Many people experience an inordinate queasiness around insects and other arthropods. There are a few species, however, that rarely elicit distaste. Of these the Coccinellidae or Ladybugs (also called Lady Birds and Lady Bird Beetles) are particularly adored. The most iconic of these are the jewel-like red and black spotted types, of which there are many. All told there are some 5,000 species of ladybugs around the world, not all of which are red, around 450 in North America, and approximately 175 species in California alone. All ladybugs share the endearing, rounded shape that their name, Coccinellidae (meaning “little sphere” – Note: some sources suggest that this name means “scarlet”), derives from. These are primarily solitary little beetles that are found nearly everywhere there a lot of plants, especially in gardens, fields, grasslands, and shrublands.
The rounded shape that gives ladybugs somewhat of a bumbling appearance is actually highly effective armor to protect them from ants. “Why do they need protection from ants?” one might ask. Well, contrary to their appearance, they are fierce and merciless predators, specializing in aphids. Hungry ladybugs will eat a wide variety of insects, but to reproduce they must eat aphids and eat large quantities of them. An adult Convergent Lady Beetle (Hippodamia convergens), a common and easily identifiable ladybug found in the Americas from Canada to northern Bolivia, eats 40-75 aphids a day with the larvae eating only slightly fewer. Aphids have a special relationship with ants.
Aphids by themselves are small, defenseless, and relatively harmless, but, as any gardener or farmer knows and fears, they can very quickly reach immense numbers. Aphids live off of plant sap, sinking their mouthparts into soft plant tissue like miniature vampires. Plant sap is high in sugars that the aphids excrete in the form of honeydew. Ants, like many animals, have an affinity for sugar and collect the sweet honeydew from aphids, in some cases treating them not so differently from the way we treat free range cows. In exchange for honeydew the ants protect the diminutive aphid herds from predators. Predators such as the voracious and heavily armored ladybug.
Farmers and gardeners have a particular fondness for ladybugs as they can potentially save a whole crop from devastation. The name “Ladybug” or “Lady Beetle” supposedly derives from vast numbers of ladybugs descending on pest infested fields after villagers prayed to the Virgin Mary to protect their crops. In Germany one of the names was Mary’s Chicken, in Sweden The Virgin Mary’s Golden Hen, in Spain Gods Little Cow, in Turkey they have the name Good Luck Bug, and in Yiddish they are called Moses’s Little Cow. In Russia seeing a ladybug indicates that a wish will soon be granted or is an indication to make a wish. Before Christianity took over northern Europe their name was tied with the Norse goddess Frejya rather than with Mary. Nearly all the names for ladybugs indicate how well respected and loved they are, though there are a few names reflect the burning aspect of the chemical defense they use to deter larger predators.
The Convergent Lady Beetle is particularly favored by farmers in the US as a natural pest control method. Despite their solitary nature one acre of alfalfa suffering from an aphid infestation can support up to 50,000 ladybugs by Dr. Kenneth Hagen’s estimate. Many farmers take preemptive steps to control aphid infestations by releasing ladybugs in bulk, purchasing buckets containing between 70,000 and 80,000 individuals per gallon.
If ladybugs are solitary, how does one collect 70,000 of them? They migrate; I’ve mentioned insect migration before, but this is not the extraordinary long distance flight of dragon flies or monarch butterflies. This is a short migration up into the hills and mountains where the ladybugs cluster in protected areas and wait for the weather to warm up.
Ladybugs do not fly if the temperature drops below 55ºF (13ºC) and the Convergent Lady Beetle spends the cooler months in diapause, an insect analogue to hibernation. In California, Convergent Lady Beetles living in the Central Valley head up into the Sierras while those closer to the coast find local hollows and protected areas to gather in. They often show fidelity to specific sites and, in the Sierras, can gather in vast numbers. Individual sites can have as much as 500 gallons of ladybugs, or more than 37 million individuals. Collectors scoop thee ladybugs up and sell them to agriculturalists around the country.
In the coastal portions of California the distances the ladybugs travel to wintering sites is not as great and they do not gather in the same density.
One place to see Hippodamia convergens gathering is in Redwood Regional Park in Oakland. There is one spot that they return to, a glade near one of the streams. They coat the low growing and dead vegetation, branches, and logs in an intermittent film of slowly moving red gems.
In some spots they clump like globs of foam stuck to old hemlock stalks, in other areas they gather on lichen covered logs.
They are not completely dormant. If you sit and watch them for a few minutes you will see them slowly mill about.
In a few places they form a nearly even coat over branches.
In other spots they cluster between the stalks of old flower-heads.
Finding these conglomerations of ladybugs is particularly exciting, in part as it is so shocking even when you are expecting it. We have so few opportunities to see large numbers of wild animals in their natural environment any more that when we do it is particularly impacting, especially if it is of a type of animal we usually see as solitary individuals. The ladybugs are also very pretty, which is always a bonus.
Macro photos taken with a 70-300mm lens and kenko macro-tubes at a high ISO due to the late time of day and shade.