With their charming spots and bright red bodies, ladybugs are pretty hard to miss. We’re used to seeing them alone, picking off sap-sucking aphids in the garden. But at certain times of year, ladybugs head for the hills to assemble in huge groups, called aggregations, clumping together in layers several bodies thick.

Ladybugs find safety in numbers, broadcasting their warning red color to predators.
Ladybugs find safety in numbers, broadcasting their warning red color to predators. (Elliott Kennerson/KQED)

This arresting, almost uncanny sight—roiling masses of tiny red bodies jostling for position on rocks, logs, and branches—is typical of the “convergent” ladybug whose range covers a great deal of North America.

In the Bay Area, one of the best places to view ladybug aggregations is Redwood Regional Park in Oakland. Between November and February, numerous points along the park’s main artery, the Stream Trail, are swarming with the insects.

DL_ladybugs_pileup_720
Movement is chaotic in a ladybug aggregation. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

“People love ladybugs, ” said Michael Charnofsky, a naturalist with East Bay Regional Park District who leads ladybug walking tours. “And to see so many in one location is fascinating to people. Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands…it’s outside the realm of their experience.”

Scientists believe the behavior evolved as a way for a solitary species to reproduce and to cope with a limited winter food supply. After fattening themselves up, and before bedding down for winter, these ladybugs are getting together to take care of some final business—namely, mating.

Ladybugs normally live solitary lives.
Ladybugs normally live solitary lives. (Josh Cassidy/KQED )

Ironically, convergent ladybugs, which are actually beetles, are not named for this behavior. The word “convergent” in their name refers to the characteristic white lines behind their heads.

In California, ladybugs spend most of the year on crops in the Central Valley, or on domestic garden plants, feeding on aphids. When the weather starts to turn chilly, however, the aphids die off in the cold.

Ladybugs eat aphids for most of the year.
Ladybugs eat aphids for most of the year. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

With food becoming scarce, the ladybugs take off, flying straight up. The wind picks them up and carries them on their way, toward hills in the Bay Area and coastal mountain ranges.

“They are literally blown into the mountains,” said Christopher Wheeler, who studied ladybug behavior for his Ph.D. at UC Riverside. “At first, they’re spread out. They use a combination of visual cues and smell to start to find each other.”

Departing ladybugs fly straight up in the air.
Departing ladybugs fly straight up in the air. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

Pheromones left behind in the mountains from previous aggregations lead these newcomers right to the best wintering spots. One type of chemical even comes from the ladybugs’ feet.

“Wherever they walk, they leave behind a chemical trace. These sites are covered in it,” said Wheeler.

Ladybugs leave pheromones behind in their footsteps.
Ladybugs leave pheromones behind in their footsteps. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

As the ladybugs trickle in one by one, the aggregation grows.

While these gatherings might seem to make the ladybugs more visible, and therefore more vulnerable to predators, the opposite is probably true, scientists say. Their higher numbers serve to magnify the warning broadcast by their red color.

“Predators have evolved to avoid that kind of visual signal,” Wheeler said.  

And that red color is no red herring. “They truly do taste bad. In high enough concentrations, they can be toxic,” he said.

Within the ladybug clumps, the movement is scrambling and unpredictable, not hierarchical like in a beehive or ant hill. Scientists think that the females—about half of the population, all of them previously unmated—may be selecting mates amid the chaos.

Aggregating ladybugs seem to jostle for position.
Aggregating ladybugs seem to jostle for position. (Elliott Kennerson/KQED)

Finally, the beetles hunker down underground, entering “diapause” or deep hibernation. Chemical changes in the ladybugs’ bodies prevent them from freezing or drying out. They can stay underground safely, even covered in snow, for up to three months.

The reemergence is gradual.

Finding mates is one reason ladybugs aggregate.
Finding mates is one reason ladybugs aggregate. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

“In snowier areas, it’s more of a deep hibernation,” said Charnofksy. “It really depends on temperature more than anything. When it warms up, you start to see them becoming more active again.”

When spring arrives, warmer daytime temperatures urge the dormant aggregators to venture forth and return home, where a diet of aphids awaits.

Black bean aphids are a ladybug favorite.
Black bean aphids are a ladybug favorite. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)
  • http://berkeleyside.com/ Tracey Taylor

    Why is this headlined “once in a lifetime”? I have seen this phenomenon in the East Bay several times already in my life!

    • City Resident

      As I understand it: from a ladybug’s perspective, it’s once in a lifetime.

Author

Elliott Kennerson

Elliott Kennerson joined KQED Science as a digital producer in 2015. He received his M.F.A. training in wildlife documentary at Montana State in Bozeman and holds a B.A. from Yale in archaeology. Before joining KQED, he produced a Regional Emmy-nominated series for KPBS in San Diego, funded by Kickstarter, called “Animal R&R.” In his former life as an actor, he was an associate artist with LightBox Theater Company in New York.

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