Wait! They may NOT have been ladybugs, scientifically known as lady beetles, family Coccinellidae.
“I'm still not convinced that the swarms are ladybugs,” Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis, told us Friday. “It's pretty late in the season for them and apparently there's no hard evidence for ladybugs except anecdotes that folks have seen a lot of ladybugs in the region. We were seeing a lot of ladybugs in the Imperial Dunes when we were there in March.”
Scientists spotted the cloud, about 10 miles wide and a mile above the ground around 9 p.m. They ruled out bats and birds. The temperature in the air? About 40 degrees or lower—considered too cold for ladybugs.
“Forty degrees is too cold for their flight muscles, but if there's a wind and they've already warmed up, it's possible they could stay airborne,” Kimsey said, adding she'd like to see some hard evidence that these were indeed ladybugs. “Otherwise this is all just speculation.”
The ladybugs were thought to be the migratory convergent lady beetles, Hippodamia convergens. Some 200 species of ladybugs reside in California. (See information on this beetle on the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program website.)
Speculation abounds. Why the huge swarm? Maybe it was the result of a combination of cues, such as temperatures and length of day, climate change (wildfires?), and lack of food? A perfect storm?
Kimsey told reporter Maanvi Singh of The Guardian in a June 7th news story: “It's too bad there wasn't anyone in a private plane up in the air at that time. We could've figured it out based on which dead insects were splatted across the wings.””
Kimsey knows about those bug splats. She was the nation's only entomologist selected for the NASA SPLAT/Boeing team to research how to decrease bug splats on aircraft and thus increase fuel efficiency in commercial jets. NASA engineers developed four different surface treatments designed to repel bugs and Boeing developed wing modifications to test an aircraft at Shreveport, La.
By the way, a Boeing EcoDemonstrator 575 took flight, reaching an altitude of 5000 feet to maximize bug splats. The panels generated 100 and 500 splats each. Kimsey identified all the insects and found that a relatively small number of species caused the bulk of the splats. They included flower flies, aphids, thrips, muscid flies, midges, mosquitoes and love bugs. Kimsey's excellence in teaching, research and public service led to her being named the 2016 recipient of the Academic Senate's Distinguished Scholarly Public Service Award and a comment from her nominators that her SPLAT research was a "great public service to NASA, the airline industry and worldwide passengers who depend on air travel."
Naturalist Greg Kareofelas, an associate at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, has never seen such a cloud but has photographed lady beetles overwintering in California's Coast Range. "When they are at the place they will spend the winter, they hide under leaves and other detritus and unless you dig down to the ground level, you don't really see them or notice they are there. I guess this is the way they are protected from the cold. I know the places I have found them are under snow for the winter. It is only when they are ready to disperse in the spring, do they congregate like on tree trunks and other places above ground level."
UC Davis emeritus professor Hugh Dingle, author of Migration: The Biology of Life on the Move (second edition, 2014, Oxford University Press), a sequel to the first edition published in 1996, says the cloud may have been lady beetles. "I guess lady beetles, but I suspect other insects were in the swarm as well."
"This one was especially large, but yes, there have been other swarms showing up on radars, especially locusts, some moths," Dingle said. "Could also have been moths, grasshoppers, etc. I confess, though, that the swarm was so large that I wonder if there was a glitch somewhere on the radar or something?"
Now if there had just been a plane near that cloud, as Kimsey pointed out, we'd have known exactly what was in that swarm.
Birds, bats, bloom? Unidentified objects?
Splat! Identified objects.
They don't announce their arrival or departure.
If you're an insect photographer, or a wanna-be-insect photographer, expect the unexpected and don't go anywhere without your camera.
That applies to such simple things as walking out your back door and stepping into your pollinator garden.
It was Friday morning, Oct. 12, and we watched a gust of wind stir the African blue basil, tousle the milkweed, and whip the 12-foot-high Mexican sunflower. "Ah, wind," I thought. "A good day for dragonflies."
As if on cue, a variegated meadowhawk dragonfly, Sympetrum corruptum, touched down on a bamboo stake, and looked right at me. I edged closer and "she" (gender identified by naturalist Greg Kareofelas, an associate with the Bohart Museum of Entomology, University of California, Davis) quickly left her perch.
I figured she would return and she did. Camera already raised, I slowly pointed my Nikon D800 with the 200mm macro lens and pressed the shutter. She left. She returned. She left. She returned.
A 'portrait studio' with the subject giving me "yes-no-maybe" answers.
In one view below, you can see the “bi-colored” Pterostigma on the wing tip and the two black spots on the top of the tip of the abdomen," noted Kareofelas. "This is unique to this species."
In another view, you can see the blurred image of a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) forming a backdrop.
Insect photography takes patience, persistence and perseverance because these six-legged critters don't announce their arrival or their departure, not like at an airport or a train station.
But they are there. "At any time, it is estimated that there are some 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects alive," according to the Smithsonian Institute. That's about 200 million insects for every human on the planet.
Your camera will find at least one of them at any given time of day.
Watching it like a hawk...
A variegated meadowhawk dragonfly, Sympetrum corruptum, that is.
We look forward to breezes--even strong gusts--in our little pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif., because often we'll see dragonflies touch down.
They'll hunt, perch, and hunt again. The wind threatens to dismount them but they hang tight.
Such was the case on Sept. 28, a time between summer and fall. Clouds parted, the sun burst through, and the Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia) and blue spike salvia (Savlia uliginosa) swayed in the breeze.
This dragonfly swayed, too. But the wind did not defeat it. Not this "hawk."
Variegated meadowhawks live near ponds, lakes, and swamps--and if you're lucky, they'll visit your back yard. They are largely tan or gray with a pale face that is tan in young males and females but becomes red in mature males, according to OdonataCentral.org. They're found throughout the United States and southern Canada; also Mexico south to Belize and Honduras. "This species may be seen on the ground more than other meadowhawks. It will also readily perch on the tips of grass stems and tree branches. It can be numerous flying over roads, lawns, meadows, marshes and ponds...It is largely tan or gray with a pale face that is tan in young males and females but becomes red in mature males."
Interested in dragonflies? The Bohart Museum of Entomology at the University of California, Davis (located in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge building on Crocker Lane) offers a beautiful dragonfly poster, "Dragonflies of California," in its gift shop. It's the work of entomologist Fran Keller (she received her doctorate in entomology from UC Davis and is now an assistant professor at Folsom Lake College) and naturalist-photographer Greg Kareofelas, a Bohart associate whose expertise includes butterflies and dragonflies.
Just call it "my old flame."
Well, it's not mine, but it is a flame of sorts, a flame skimmer dragonfly (Libellula saturata) and it's firecracker red.
We see this species frequenting our pollinator garden in Vacaville, which includes a fish pond, flower beds, and bamboo stakes for their perches.
If you like dragonflies, you may want to purchase a dragonfly poster at the gift shop in the Bohart Museum of Entomology, located in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge building on Crocker Lane, UC Davis. It features 18 species of dragonflies, ranging from the common whitetail and green darner to the Western river cruiser and the bison snaketail. And, of course the flame skimmer.
The poster? It's the work of former UC Davis entomology doctoral candidate Fran Keller, now an assistant professor at Folsom Lake College, and naturalist/photographer Greg Kareofelas of Davis. Keller received her doctorate in entomology, studying with Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum and professor of entomology at UC Davis.
Well, it's not so much as a "best-kept secret" but a "UC Davis treasure."
Thousands attended the seventh annual UC Davis Biodiversity Museum Day, which showcased 13 museums or collections. Billed as "a celebration of the vast diversity of life on Earth, both present and past," it's also "a celebration of science."
It took place Feb. 17. Here's the update: you can now see it on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzdOuHivEms. The newly posted video is the work of talented UC Davis undergraduate student Alexander Fisher-Wagner, who filmed, edited and posted the piece.
You can get a bird's eye view and a bug's eye view of all the activities, which ranged from ancient dinosaur bones to live praying mantises, from hawks to honey bees, and from California condor specimens to carnivorous plants. Participating were:
- Arboretum and Public Garden, Good Life Garden, next to the Robert Mondavi Wine and Food Science Institute, 392 Old Davis Road
- Anthropology Museum, 328 Young Hall and grounds
- Bohart Museum of Entomology, Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building, Crocker Lane
- Botanical Conservatory, Greenhouses along Kleiber Hall Drive
- California Raptor Center, 340 Equine Lane, off Old Davis RoadDesign Museum, 124 Cruess Hall, off California Ave
- Center for Plant Diversity, Sciences Laboratory Building, off Kleiber Hall Drive
- Design Museum, 124 Cruess Hall, off California Avenue
- Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, Bee Biology Road, off Hopkins Road
- Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology, Room 1394, Academic Surge Building, Crocker Lane
- Nematode Collection, Sciences Laboratory Building, off Kleiber Hall Drive
- Paleontology Collection, Earth and Physical Sciences Building, 434 LaRue Road
- Phaff Yeast Culture Collection, Robert Mondavi Institute of Wine and Food Science, 392 Old Davis Road, on campus
- Viticulture and Enology Culture Collection, Robert Mondavi Institute of Wine and Food Science, 392 Old Davis Road, on campus
The annual Biodiversity Museum Day, free and family friendly, is indeed a special occasion. All participating museums and collections have active education and outreach programs, but the collections are not always accessible to the public, said Biodiversity Museum Day committee chair Tabatha Yang, education and outreach coordinator for the Bohart Museum of Entomology.
The UC Davis Biodiversity Museum Committee is already gearing up for the eighth annual, set Feb. 16, 2019. Mark your calendars!
Meanwhile, the Bohart Museum, directed by Lynn Kimsey, professor of entomology at UC Davis, is hosting a Moth Night this Saturday, July 21 from 8 to 11 p.m. Free and open to the public (and it's family friendly), the event features both indoor and outdoor displays as scientists share their love and knowledge of moths, butterflies and other insects.
A blacklighting display (moth trap) will get underway around 9:30-10 p.m.
The Bohart Museum Moth Night is being held in conjunction with National Moth Week, July 21-29, which celebrates the beauty, life cycles and habitats of moths.
Bohart scientists will be on hand to discuss moths and answer questions. They include Bohart senior museum scientist Steve Heydon; entomologist Jeff Smith, curator of the the moth and butterfly specimens; "Moth Man" John DeBenedictis; naturalist and photographer Greg Kareofelas; and UC Davis undergraduate entomology student Wade Spencer, who staffs the live "petting zoo," featuring Madagascar hissing cockroaches, walking sticks and tarantulas.
The family craft activity is "shaping up to be colored beeswax moths on a candle," Yang said. Free refreshments--cookies and hot chocolate--will be served.