“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.
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.
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.
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!
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.”
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!
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:
They have a voracious appetite for aphids and scale insects, especially when the ladybug is in the larval stage:
I remember seeing these little monsters when I was a kid and never realizing they were going to metamorphose into my beloved ladybug!
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:
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.
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.
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:
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°.
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:
And here are some great accounts of ladybug swarm encounters:
And here is a truly astounding, MUST SEE YouTube video of a truly stupendous ladybug swarm: