My Encounter With The World's Cutest Swarm of Toxic Bugs

Ladybugs are the one kind of bug you don't mind crawling on you. They're cute. They're pretty. And they swarm. They swarm by the tens of millions. I had a personal encounter with a smaller swarm when hiking. Find out about my brush with nature's most adorable fury.

Ladybugs - also known as ladybirds - are not as cute as buttons. They are so cute that clothing manufacturers occasionally make buttons to look like them. That's how adorable they are. When one lands on you, you're supposed to count the spots to see if it brings good luck, but really you just want to gawk at it because it's so pretty. So one day, when I was walking in the woods, in the coastal mountains of California, I was pleased to see a ladybug land on me when I got to a shady clearing. Cute! I waved my arm a little, and it flew off. As I walked on a path through the clearing, I noticed I was surrounded by bushes that had clusters of red berries. When I saw that all kinds of plants around the clearing had the red clusters on it, I thought it must have been a chemical that was sprayed on the plants, or an invasive type of moss or fungus. Then another ladybug landed on my hand.

Every protruding branch was covered with clusters of ladybugs, some many layers thick. I looked around at the bugs, and eventually moved onward. As I moved up the path, the sun moved overhead, so when I got to the next clearing, it was sunny. Everywhere the sun touched there was a swirl of ladybugs. I could see their red shells milling through the air, and on the ground they crawled over the greenery. The path was dusty and bare, so I could walk through without squishing them, but I had to stop several times to pick ladybugs out of my hair, and keep my hand over my mouth to keep from inhaling any of them. I could hear the sound of their wings in the air, and when I got out of the clearing, I shook them off my clothes. For the next half mile up the mountain trail, whenever there was a break in the trees, there were swarms of ladybugs, flying around in the sunlight or clumped by the thousands on shady bushes. I probably walked through a million of them.

Which makes sense, because swarming is what ladybugs do, apparently. I found that out when I went home and looked up why these things were grouped together by the tens of thousands like they were starring in an unfortunate new Alfred Hitchcock film. Although most people only encounter these plucky aphid-eaters in ones and twos, they routinely cluster together in groups that literally blanket the landscape, Biblical-plague-style.

It was pretty on the path. It's not so pretty when it's invading your farm by the tens of millions, as happened in the UK in 2009. Although the farm was an organic one that welcomed the ladybugs since they controlled the aphid population on the grounds, having a carpet of ladybugs to step on and a skin of ladybugs for any farm worker in the fields cannot have been entirely pleasant. The bugs crawl happily into mouths and over eyelids.

And they don't move on. Ladybugs will swarm for as long as the aphid population holds out. Since ladybugs are toxic (hence their redness), birds generally leave them alone. Some will stay on the farm and hibernate under logs and rocks for the winter, waiting to come out in force again in the spring. Others will take flight and head for the mountains. Their flight is a curvy one, since ladybugs will literally stop moving and drop out of the sky when they get below fifty-five degrees, so their flight resembles a roller coaster. Once they get to the mountains, they eat, breed, clump together for warmth, and ride out the fall and winter.

Since there are few areas of California that aren't fairly close to farm land, this cloud of tiny, pretty, black-spotted wings had probably migrated over from a farm and was setting up shop for the winter. Perhaps, though, that stretch of forest was aphid-ridden. I've been back several times in the years since, and while there are almost always huge groups of ladybugs in the clearings of that trail, but none as large as the first year I noticed them. Ladybug populations follow aphid populations; some years are mild and other years end with people sweeping broom-loads of bugs out of their doorway. The bug populations also tend to return to the same areas year after year. People who sell the bugs to farms and to gardeners know special spots in the woods where they gather by the tens of thousands and literally scoop them out and put them in bags.

The bigger-name swarms like locusts and rats tend to be more well-known. It's nice to know that, swarm-of-insects-wise, there are cute and harmless things out there that like to get together. Seeing huge groups of animals is always impressive, but running for your life detracts from the wonder. Of all the things I might have run across in the woods, swarm-wise, I'm lucky I saw the sweetest. Of all the forces of nature I encountered, it's nice to have seen the least-malignant. I'm still glad I didn't ten million of them, though.

Top Image: Grayson Orlando

Via Summit Post, SFSU, Telegraph, and the Independent.