Beetle mania 

These mountain climbers do it with six legs

They're one of the earliest signs of life in your yard each year—those brilliant, spotted VW "bugs" of the insect world. I mean ladybugs, of course, though we in this country are about the only people who call them that. Elsewhere—amid scores of colloquial names—they generally are known as "ladybirds" or "lady beetles," which is more accurate, since they are, in fact, beetles and not true bugs.

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Ladybugs likely are the first insect that your children get to know. Their charming looks and industriousness at eating plant pests like aphids and scale bugs have made them a favorite of farmers and gardeners throughout time.

But one of the coolest things about ladybugs is something you only see high up in the mountains. At times and places known only to other ladybugs, they appear together by the hundreds and even thousands in late spring through fall, covering rocks, trees, even picnickers.

Entomologist J. Gordon Edwards—author of one of the best-loved climbing guides to Glacier National Park—described one such "living scourge of ladybugs" at 7,000 feet on Pinnacle Peak in Washington in 1952.

"They swarmed over my body and face," he wrote in The Coleopterists Bulletin. "They violated my lunch, and they tried to crawl into the lens of my camera... For months thereafter I found squashed ladybug remnants in odd places in my equipment."

A few weeks later, Edwards again encountered thousands of the tiny peak baggers, this time under limestone slabs atop 9,365-foot Allen Mountain in Glacier National Park. These did not annoy him, he wrote, because they were all dead, likely due to the unusually heavy snows of the previous fall that, instead of insulating them, entombed them.

Edwards climbed mountains in Glacier once or twice a week for the next four summers, but he never saw more than a few ladybugs until July 9, 1956, when he found hundreds once again.

More than 50 years later, the mystery of these congregations remains. Are the insects mating? Sometimes. Are they looking for a place to spend the winter? Probably. But why they swarm above timberline and how they choose a site is still unknown.

It's the unpredictability of coming across such a scene that gives you that special lift, that sudden delight and sense of weirdness—like finding your ho-hum neighbor is really a secret raver.

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Ask hikers about it and you'll hear plenty of tales about ladybug encounters, everywhere from the Sleeping Woman Trail to the Swan Range. Google "ladybug swarms" and you'll find YouTube videos and blog posts from all over the West: trees or bare ground blanketed in red; hikers hopscotching to avoid crushing dozens with each step; the bitter taste and perfume as flying hordes find open mouths.

Around here, the flash mobs might include imported Asian ladybirds, which vary in color but can be distinguished by a marking on the pronotum, or neck, that looks like an "M." You'll also run into native types like the aptly named Hippodamia convergens, with classic black on red coloring. Don't bother counting the spots, though: They don't reveal age. Just like some human partiers I know.

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