Big Big Beetle Bash!
Crashing through the undergrowth and pulling broken sticks out of my hair I head up through a creek in the Matilija Wilderness in Ojai. I am here conducting research on water levels and the animal populations struggling to survive in the barren creek. Although barely any water flows, the species of Southern California are so well adapted that they persist in the tiniest pools. Some even slow down their metabolism and race the clock for the first rains of the year.
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It is mid august and the sun is beating down. Sweat gets in my eyes and I squint to see the heat rising off the ground in waves. I keep moving forward after wetting my hat in a small puddle. The cold water seems to evaporate immediately as it runs down my neck.
I reach a large boulder that is flanked by poison oak and thick blackberry, and the only route is to climb over the rock. I toss my pack above it and wedge a boot in a crevice between the boulder and a smaller stone. I heave myself over the rock and roll onto the ground above. I am suddenly eye level with something incredibly unusual.
A few small pools are being choked by a thick layer of algae, and a few boulders hang above them. Yet these boulders are red. They seem to be moving, almost rippling. I take a closer look and realize this swarming mass is actually made up of thousands upon thousands of ladybugs.
They cover every inch of this rock and are piled up on top of each other. As I look around I notice more and more rocks covered with the lady bugs. A strange phenomenon I do say. This isn’t the only time I have seen this happen in this very creek.
A few months prior I came across the same grouping of ladybugs a bit further upstream from this one. And even a few weeks prior to that I had been walking in a swarm of these ladybugs, flying around in almost an endless snowstorm. They were landing on my face, arms and everything, tasting my skin before spreading their shell and wings to fly further on.
My curiosity peaked and I went to research these odd events. According to most scientists this is something rather common throughout California. They call it aggregation, which seems appropriate. The ladybugs all come together following pheremones, and will mate, and gather together to overwinter.
This made sense to me, just like humans go to the nightclub to find mates the ladybugs all gathered together for their own party. However, something wasn’t right. Every article I read detailed that the ladybugs do this to survive the cooler temperatures of the winter, and that they do this once their main food source, aphids, are no longer present and feeding on plants.
These two things did not check out, I had been seeing these aggregations from June-August. Arguably, the beginning of the hottest months. This place they aggregated is exceptionally hot, and I've been seeing aphids all over the place recently. So why are they coming together now?
Thankfully all the research on these congregations mentions that the true causes for this phenomenon are unknown. The main theory is overwintering, but that can’t be the case here. Maybe, just maybe the lady bugs have more to their life history than we know about. Maybe there is some different benefit from coming together, maybe they enjoy each other's company.
I am happy for it to remain a mystery, and to add more fuel to the confusing fire! It is no fun when we know the answers to everything. To keep this interesting I also came across a similar aggregation, of a different species of small beetle. The Alder beetle is similar in size to the ladybug but has an iridescent blue-green shell.
Up further in the Ojai wilderness in Sespe, I discovered a tree crawling with Alder beetles. All running around and stacking up on one another. Researching this, I saw no information on congregation. Thankfully, this means there is more to learn. Why are they gathering? How do they choose a location? Does one beetle initiate the gathering? How complex are their social bonds? The questions are endless and fascinating. Please leave a response if you have a theory or if you have seen anything similar! Photo and video by Isaac Yelchin
Isaac Yelchin is foremost a herpetologist. He studies lizards, frogs, newts, and the like. Specifically, he spends all day and night thinking about what it is like to be an animal. What are the animals thinking about? What is their perspective? When he should be working, he sits and stares at his pet lizard asking himself these questions.