Category Archives: ecosystem

They are the Lady(bugs) of the Canyon

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“Trina takes her paints and her threads
And she weaves a pattern all her own
Annie bakes her cakes and her breads
And she gathers flowers for her home
For her home she gathers flowers
And Estrella, dear companion
Colors up the sunshine hours
Pouring music down the canyon-
Coloring the sunshine hours
They are the ladies of the canyon”
~ Joni Mitchell, Ladies of the Canyon

The Big October Rainstorm

A couple of days after the big October 2009 rainstorm, I headed up Centennial Drive to catch the fire trail up into the the hills of Strawberry Canyon.

Heading Up Centennial Drive to the Fire Trail

The Fire Trailhead on Centennial Drive

As San Francisco Bay Area residents will recall, that October 13th storm was epic—the heaviest October rain in nearly 50 years! San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Livermore all set rainfall records for a single day in October.

The Big Rain of October 2009

Nearly 4 inches fell in downtown Oakland, almost 20 percent of what the city usually gets during an entire year! In the Santa Cruz Mountains, rainfall totals approached 10 inches, and Angel Island record 77 mph gusts. At one point, 193,000 residents were without power!

The fire trail up Strawberry Canyon showed a lot of erosion, and there was still heavy runoff in Strawberry Creek itself. Especially near the higher part of the fire trail, where the winds had been higher, there were good-sized tree limbs littering the trail.  Interested to see what I’d find, I started up the trail head, only to come upon:

In Strawberry Canyon, an Amazing Sight!

I hadn’t gone far up the trail from the Centennial Drive parking lot, when I noticed something very unusual looking on the alongside the trail.  Something that was subtly moving. Lots and lots of something was moving:

Ladybugs! But not just hundreds, but thousands of them. I could scarcely believe me eyes, the plants were so thick with them.  The more I looked, the more I found:

Hundreds of Thousands of Ladybugs!

I had heard of lady bug gatherings, but I had never seen one myself, and this one was massive. They were mostly in blackberry bushes along the trail, and for at least 20 yards, the plants were thickly coated with them.  (I wish I could convey more of the extent of the swarm, but because the ladybugs were in the bushes, they disappeared in any distant photo I tried to take.)

I read that a gallon jar will hold from 72,000 to 80,000 ladybugs. If that’s the case, then the number alongside the fire trail had to be way, way over a hundred thousand, maybe two or three! It was astonishing, and somehow touching, to see so many little creatures in a brief moment of community.

The Most Beloved Bug in the World

What we call the ladybug is a beetle of the family coccinellidae. In the UK, Ireland, Australia, Pakistan, and South Africa they are known as ladybirds.

“Ladybug, ladybird, by any name, I’m wonderful!”

If there is a more beloved insect in the world than the ladybug, I don’t know what it would be. It is certainly the all-time favorite insect of children. Few English-speaking people haven’t heard the nursery rhyme, Ladybird, Ladybird:

Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home
Your house is on fire and your children are gone
All except one, and that’s Little Anne
For she has crept under the warming pan.

I remember as a child being rather troubled by this poem. Why is her house on fire? And where have all her children gone? Poor ladybug! At least Little Anne was able to escape unharmed!

“Hey, where did everybody go?”

Here’s another ladybug poem I learned as a child, which some of you may know:

Five Little Ladybugs

Five little ladybugs climbing up a door
One flew away then there were four

Four little ladybugs sitting on a tree
One flew away then there were three

Three Little ladybugs landed on a shoe
One flew away then there were two

Two little ladybugs looking for some fun
One flew away and then there was one

One little ladybug sitting in the sun
She flew away and then there were none

Ladybug Names and Folklore

The beloved ladybug, or ladybird, seems to have some sort of affinity in people’s minds with cows and, well, God. In Ireland, Wales, and Russia, the beetle is called “God’s Little Cow.” In Croatia they are called “God’s Little Sheep.” In Romania, the ladybug is the “Lord’s Cow,” the “Lord’s Oxen,” and even “God’s Hen!” The French call it “the Good Lord’s animal.”

Moo! Moo! Moooooooo!

How did the humble ladybug attain such godliness—and “cow-ness” in the eyes of people all over the world? I did lots of research, but couldn’t find anything definitive. But there is something about a group on them on a plant does somewhat remind me of cows grazing.

Or maybe it’s cow-like the spots? Who knows!

God’s Cow? Wait, that’s me!

Not only does the ladybug have many Godly names, it also has much happy folklore associated with it. As Wikipedia notes:

“In France, ladybirds are considered to be bringers of good weather. In parts of Northern Europe, tradition says that one’s wish is granted if a ladybird lands on oneself (this tradition lives on in North America, where children capture a ladybug, make a wish, and then “blow it away” back home to make the wish come true). In Italy, it is said by some that if a ladybird flies into one’s bedroom, it is considered good luck.

In central Europe, a ladybird crawling across a girl’s hand is thought to mean she will get married within the year. In some cultures they are referred to as fortune bugs. In Russia, a popular children’s rhyme exists with a call to fly to the sky and bring back bread; similarly, in Denmark a ladybird, called a mariehøne (“Mary’s hen”), is asked by children to fly to “our lord in heaven and ask for fairer weather in the morning.”

And of course, Ladybugs are famous for being friends of gardeners and farmers:

“OK, which way to the aphids?”

They have a voracious appetite for aphids and scale insects, especially when the ladybug is in the larval stage:

“Love dem little aphids; aphid’s what I likes to eat”

I remember seeing these little monsters when I was a kid and never realizing they were going to metamorphose into my beloved ladybug!

“Hey, I may be ugly now, but wait until I grow up!”

Some Scientific Facts about Ladybugs

Ladybugs, coccinellidae, are small insects, ranging from 1 mm to 10 mm (0.04 to 0.4 inches). They are commonly scarlet but can also be yellow and orange:

and most, but not all, have their trademark small black spots on their wing covers.

Like your typical beetle, they have black legs, head and antennae. There are 450 species native to North America and over 5,000 species worldwide.

Most coccinellids are predators, and of course are famous for eating aphids and scale insects, as mentioned above:

Aphid: “Hey were did Ed go? He was here just a minute ago!”

But they will also eat eggs and larvae of their own species if prey is scarce. In fact, some species of ladybugs lay infertile eggs with their fertile eggs, apparently to give the larvae something to eat when they are getting started. Momma ladybug is also smart enough to lay her eggs near the prey her larvae need to feed upon. In her lifetime, the female ladybug can lay more than 1000 eggs.

Ladybug Life Cycle – butterflynature.com

The bright, beautiful colors of ladybugs has a purpose: it’s a warning to predators that they taste awful and are even poisonous. Once a predator tastes a ladybug and gets a mouthful of its powerful alkaloid poison, it is not likely to try another one! When attacked, a ladybug will play “dead” and leak foul-smelling toxins from it joints. Some species will even spray a toxin from their abdomen that is venomous to mammals and other insects.

This warning signal is called aposematism, which comes from apo– away, and sematic– sign/meaning. It’s an evolutionary adaptation that benefits both predator and prey, since the warning signal keeps them both from harm.

Monarch butterflies, which we often see passing through the Berkeley Hills, also use aposematism, since they are very nasty tasting.

Aposematism—”Don’t eat me-I don’t taste good!”

The warning signal doesn’t have to be a bright color—the rattlesnakes rattle is an example of sound aposematism, and so is the bad odor of a stink bug.

The Mystery of the Mass Gathering of Ladybugs in Strawberry Canyon

I had heard that ladybug overwinter in huge groups, massing together for warmth (and security, I suppose, given their nasty taste and smell when attacked.) But the incredible mass of ladybugs I found in Strawberry Canyon that day seemed somewhat anomalous to me.

Typically, coccinellids gather on the south (sunny) side of large objects like houses or trees. When they can, they get out of the weather altogether, which can result in them invading houses in the winter, to the dismay of owners:

“Dude, check out the new winter digs!”

These ladybugs were all out in the open, along the side of the trail, and there they would be exposed to rain and the weather. My guess was that the once-in-fifty-year rain had flushed or flooded them out of some overwintering spot. Or maybe, the huge rain has sent the ladybugs of the Bay Area up to the canyon to find their usual overwintering spot. After about 3 days, the mass gathering dispersed. I came up one day, and they were all gone, as mysteriously as they had come.  The ladybugs had “flown away home” and even “Little Anne” was nowhere to be seen!

In the past few weeks, I have started finding small masses of ladybugs here and there in Strawberry Canyon. Their appearance seems to be totally dependent on how warm it has been, which makes sense, since they don’t like to fly when it’s cooler than 55 F°.

Ladybugs of Late Winter

Another Moment of “Faerie” in the Berkeley Hills

Seeing that mass gathering after the October storm may have been a once-in-a-lifetime event. I don’t know. I’ll sure keep my eyes open next fall and early winter for another mass gathering.

What I do know is that seeing hundreds of thousands of beautiful ladybugs coating the blackberry busheswas yet another magical, “faerie” moment in my beloved Berkeley Hills, as I discussed in The Road Goes Ever On-the Berkeley Hill Trails.

If you are ever out hiking about in the Berkeley Hills, keep your eyes open. You bound to see them if you look closely. They are the Ladies of the Canyon!

Here are some great ladybug info links:

http://everything-ladybug.com/ladybug-life-cycle.html

http://www.ladybuglady.com/LadybugsFAQ.htm

http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/bugs/ladybug.html

http://www.ca.uky.edu/entomology/entfacts/ef105.asp

And here are some great accounts of ladybug swarm encounters:

http://richwolf.wordpress.com/2009/07/18/the-attack-of-the-ladybugs/

http://naturefiles.wordpress.com/2009/08/14/lady-bug-swarm-turns-green-mountain-red/

And here is a truly astounding, MUST SEE YouTube video of a truly stupendous ladybug swarm:

Ladybugs Invade & Go Wild – Invasion Covers Home And Trees

♥♥♥

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Berkeley Hills-El Niño Storms Hit Hard

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All my East Coast friends that used to live in the San Francisco Bay Area have told me how much they envy the weather out here—especially when the windchill is say, 20 below zero and snow and ice are everywhere! But they always warn, “True, the weather there is mostly wonderful, but wait until the winter rains come!

Well, they came, and I have to say, I’m impressed! The storms that march in from the North Pacific are indeed amazing, powerful storms, with huge amounts of water and energy.

As a weather buff, I knew this was coming, and in fact, have been looking forward to it. (See “Escape from New England-a weather nut’s confession“)

It’s El Niño Time!

We are in the middle of what’s called a “moderate” El Niño event (technically, the phenomenon is called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation ). The bottom line is ocean temperatures in the Pacific have changed dramatically, shifting global air masses, and allowing far more of the amazing storms that form in the Aleutian Low and in the Northern Pacific to strike all along the California coast.

(I’m going to do an in-depth discussion on El Niño in a later post, but if you’re interested, in the “weather nut’s confession” post, I explain the basic mechanism of storm genesis in this area, and the Aleutian Low is one of the very big players.)

Here Comes the Rain! ( And we need it!)

For now, suffice it to say that the rails are greased for all that moisture and energy that are often blocked off by semi-permanent high pressure to head our way the rest of this winter. And head our way they have! Today marks the passage of the third, and most powerful storm, in string of storms that have pounded both Northern and Southern California with flooding rain, snow, high winds, and even an apparent tornado in the Long Beach area Tuesday afternoon! (See “Rare Mesocyclone/Tornado Hits Southern California” at AccuWeather Ken Clark’s terrific Western US Weather Blog.)

Storm Surf in Pacifica – Paul Sakuma/AP

Petaluma Flooding – Brant Ward – The Chronicle

These last three low pressure systems have caused considerable damage with twenty-foot surf, winds over 80 mph, and flash floods.  Some areas have gotten over 6 inches of rain. Mudslides and debris flows have been a special problem in southern California, as they often are:

Even so, the development of this El Niño is not all bad. For one thing, the surfers at Mavericks, near Half Moon Bay, love the enormous swells that come with these powerful storms:

Storm Surf at Mavericks

But most of all, it’s bringing much-needed rain and snow to California and to the drought-parched Southwest. (The problem in El Niño winters is getting too much rain too fast.)

Here in the Bay Area and the Sierras, the heavy rain and snow are very good news. Due to a drought over the last three years, statewide reservoirs are still just at 74 percent of average to date, so all of this rain is a big boost.

The good news is that the Sierra snowpack, where the bulk of California’s water supply comes from, is now at 96 percent of normal, and will only pile higher with each new storm this winter.

Heavy Sierra Nevada Snows

The prognostication is that this very wet pattern will continue until spring, and if you look out in the north Pacific, you can see the next set of impressive storms are already forming and heading our way:

Pacific Storms Lining Up – The Weather Channel

Storm Scenes on UCB Campus and in the Berkeley Hills

Here in Berkeley, we got several inches of rain and wind gusts over 50 mph. Powerful thunderstorms embedded in the low pressure system actually produced hail, a rarity in this area. I wanted to take  pictures in the Berkeley Hills as each storm system passed through, but I would have needed an underwater camera!  In between storms, I did get some cool storm images. (All the images below are “clickable” for larger versions.)

During a break in the rain, I went out to see how the storm had affected the Berkeley campus.  The newly repaired and renovated Campanile had weathered the storm just fine:

and the campus was  a sea of umbrellas as students scurried to classes:

I did see a fair amount of tree damage from the high winds of the thunderstorms.  The Eucalyptus seemed fine, but I saw a fair amount of lost limbs with the red woods:

The north divide of Strawberry Creek runs in front of the Life Sciences building.  The debris line on the grass shows how high the creek got during the some of the torrential downpours:

Leaving the campus, I headed up Centennial Drive into Strawberry Canyon itself.   The Creek was really full, and even hours after the last heavy downpour, water was pouring into it from its tributaries:

On the hike up into the Canyon, I was once again struck by how beautiful the lichen and moss on the trees look, especially after a rain:

About half-way up the lower Strawberry Canyon  fire trail,  a thunderstorm cell moved through the canyon, and I got totally soaked:

But, I loved it.  Hiking in the rain, or in a storm, in the Berkeley Hills is one of my favorite things to do.  The rain makes everything so clean and  beautiful, and the smells and sounds are so intense.

As I got higher up the fire trail, I crossed over to Claremont Canyon.  Looking out at Oakland, I could see two strong thunderstorms moving through:

Looking north toward El Cerrito, I could see another powerful storm in the northern part of San Francisco Bay:

At this particular moment, San Francisco was in-between thunderstorm cells and catching a small break in the clouds (that line of lights on the right side of the picture, by the way, is University Avenue in Berkeley)

Soon, it was getting pretty dark, so I headed down from the fire trail onto Panoramic Way:

As the darkness closed in, I got one more photo of San Francisco and the Bay:

As the lights of Bay cities came alive, I thought to myself how blessed I am to live in Berkeley and in the Bay Area.  The storms of winter and  El Niño are all just part of the wonder of one of the most beautiful places in the world.

(In my next post, I’m going to show a large mudslide I discovered yesterday in the Berkeley Hills on Panoramic Way and discuss the mechanics of mudslides and debris flows.  Stay tuned!)

Hello world! Welcome to The Nature of Berkeley

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Hello!  The blog is a celebration of the natural beauty and wonders of the Berkeley Hills area.  I hope you enjoy your visit here!

Steve Goodheart
November 6, 2009