Lady Bugs

They are the most loved, admired and respected of all the “creepy crawlies.” Two year olds and insect-phobics readily hold them. Nursery rhymes tell of their concern for fire and propensity to fly away home when their children are all alone. Familiar to everyone all over the world they are, of course, the ladybugs. Technically they should be called lady bird beetles. Because to an entomologist a “bug” means a specific kind of insect and “ladybugs” are actually beetles and not true bugs. But we’ll just call them ladybugs anyway.

There are over 175 species of ladybugs in California but the commonest one is the Convergent Ladybug, Hippodamia convergens. This common name refers to the two white marks on the black thorax (right behind the head) that would meet if extended. The spots vary from none to 12. Males have slightly larger feet than females and can easily climb the sides of a glass jar. Females with smaller feet cannot climb glass.

For nine months out of the year there are huge aggregations of Convergent Ladybugs gathered on fence posts, fallen trees and in shrubs in the coast ranges and the foothills of the Sierra Neveda.. These clusters tend to be in open areas of the forest where the sun shines through the trees. These ladybugs were born either in the Sacramento or the San Joaquin Valley.

In the Central Valley, an adult ladybug will lay around 1,500 eggs. These hatch in about five days into alligator-shaped larvae that are black with orange spots. These larvae are voracious eaters and feed on pollen and aphids. One teen-age ladybug may eat 400 aphids before becoming an adult. This insatiable appetite has endeared ladybugs to gardeners.

By early June, times are getting tough (hot and dry) in the valley and the adult ladybugs fly up until they reach a temperature ceiling of 55 degrees F. On some days this may be up as high as one mile. The breeze then blows them to their next promised land. The predominate northwesterly wind sends the majority into the Sierra Nevada foothills. But an east wind will propel some of them to the coast. The ladybugs that we see in our local forests may have traveled over 300 miles. Quite an accomplishment for a tiny insect.

The ladybugs stick around here for nine months and form the massive colonies that are now visible. Laboratory experiments suggest that the clustering is stimulated by reduced temperature and light. In the Sierra they have been found at 6000 feet clustering and surviving under snow drifts! The ladybugs are basically hibernating and do not eat but live off their accumulated aphid fat.

Why the colossal clusters? One suggestion is that predators (birds) are discouraged from eating ladybugs because of the obnoxious odors emitted by the large group. But another major motivating factor may be sex. In these large groups female ladybugs have a wider selection of potential mates. The best partner is the fattest one because he has been able to store the most energy during the brief feeding period in the valley. This is a good attribute to pass on to your offspring. On warm days a veritable sexual orgy takes place in the ladybug clumps. Mother Goose never mentioned this.

The female can store the sperm for months. In late winter or early spring the ladybugs wait for the right wind to take them back to the Central Valley. They use the sperm to fertilize their eggs and then they die. The cycle is complete.

The ability of ladybugs to consume aphids has created a market for them. But dealers only collect the aggregations. Some of these groups may contain 500 gallons of beetles with 80,000 beetles per gallon. That’s the good news. The bad news is that when you buy your “organic” aphid control, they immediately fly away especially if the temperature is over 65. But even if they stayed they wouldn’t eat your aphids. Remember they only cluster to mate; dinner comes later.

Lightening Strike

Lightening strike- 1992 article


A shocking story

I recently had a hair-raising experience, literally. I was caught in an electrical storm on a 13,000′ mountain. It was a transforming experience as we say here in Marin. Wheeler Peak is the second highest point in Nevada and is the centerpiece for our newest national park, the Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada. During the last week in July I took a group of people camping there to thoroughly explore the area.

After spending five days hiking and getting acclimated to the elevation, eleven of us decided to climb the peak. I have done it before, it is not a technical climb, no snow or ice and the trail is easy, steep but easy. The previous evening I went over the equipment list — rain gear, long underwear, hat, gloves, warm jacket. I said that we probably won’t need this stuff but it’s essential to carry. The weather on the mountain can change instantly. If there is any sign of thunderstorms we would abort our venture. And if per chance we were caught out we were to get off the mountain as fast as possible and get down low to avoid beting struck by lightning. I didn’t expect any of that stuff to happen of course.

The next day was bright and blue with only a few high cirrus clouds. I hadn’t seen that kind of cloud and wondered what they meant. In West Marin they mean a front is coming in, usually in 12 to 18 hours. We were on the trail at 7:45 AM, one way of 4 1/2 miles and an elevation gain of 3500′. It takes most people about 6 hours to do the round trip. The first mile was pretty easy, the second got us above timber line. And then it was huffing and puffing as we switchbacked back up the 30 degree slope. Our screaming lungs aching for a break, admiring the tough alpine plants. By now our respective abilities staggered us over a mile. When the first three made it to the top in a little over three hours, there were two clouds in the sky. One over a mountain to the north that was 40 miles away and the other to the south over a closer peak. I kept watching them. They were leaking, you could see rain attempting to fall, never reaching the ground. That is called virga, which is Latin for twig.

It was us and a hundred ravens were circling the mountain, tumbling and dancing. Ravens are associated with death, harbringers of bad news. But I like them. We watched a pair of Kestrels pursue every unfortunate small bird that flew over the mountain to get the valleys. I went over to the edge and stared down a 1500′ sheer drop to the glacier far below. That invisible hand kept pushing me from behind, death always seems so close at edges. One step, one slip and that’s it, no going back. I am always fascinated at how little separates us from death.

We were on top of the world and could easily see 125 miles in all directions. Eventually the others arrived. I kept watching that cloud on the near mountain, it was very high but it was getting bigger. I started to think we should go but some had just arrived, it didn’t seem fair to make them go right back down. So I was mum. The plan was to eat lunch at the top but it soon became clear that our innocent sunny day was rapidly becoming ominous. It was definitely time to leave. A couple of people had wisely already made that decision on their own and were plunging downhill.

I said let’s go, no eating lunch here. Moments after starting down, a cloud literally immediately formed right over our heads, seemingly out of nothing. It was suddenly very dark and then there was a brilliant flash of lightening, I immediately looked at my watch. After three seconds the thunder surrounded us. The resounding roar filled the valley and literally shook us. I may have only thought it or I may have shouted ..”We are where the Gods make lightening.” It had struck a mere half mile from us. It was getting scary.

The adrenline surged. The trail so very slowly and painfully negotiated only moments before became a blur. As we raced downhill there were two groups of us…three ahead and five behind. I began to feel the static electricity, the hairs were standing on end and a crackling filled the air. I heard a shout behind me, up the mountain. As I turned I saw Dick go down on one knee. I had already considered one bad thing that could happen. A twisted ankle on loose rocks and we would have to carry someone down the mountain. I thought Dick had slipped and hurt his foot. I yelled back what happened, no one heard me over the wind that was building. I watched Dick through my binoculars. He put his hand on his forehead and was kneeling on a rock. I was praying he would lift his head up, I did not want to go back up that mountain. Danger was up, safety was down. He soon stood up and I breathed a sigh of relief, his ankle wasn’t hurt. I didn’t realize that 6’6” Dick had been struck by lightening!

Dick, had just been hit by ground lightening, recovered quickly.

I flew down the mountain, hopping across boulders, charging straight down the hillside. The entire rocky surface had become a highly charged area. There was another tremendous flash of lightening very close that coursed throughout my body, I actually felt that electricity in me. At that moment I realized that we could be killed on this mountain. It was still too steep to run. I kept turning and looking back at my friends, counting them. A young boy scout ran past me saying that he was too young to die. I felt exactly the same way.

You could feel the tension building in the air. It was nearly imperceptibly at first, and I didn’t know whether I was just imagining it. But then my ears would crackle, a buzz would fill the air, and weird light flashes were in my peripheral vision. I yelled at my hiking mate, Alan, to get down immediately. We bowed our heads to the mountain, forced down to our knees and waited. Crackling and more buzzing and then the thunder would come, the pressure was relieved, we were not struck and could get up and start running again. The body knew what to do, all of us were responding on a gut level and doing what was necessary to survive. We were all prostrating ourselves, thrown down to the ground by forces so powerful they were beyond imagining.

They told me later that Dick kept saying that it was a good day to die. I didn’t think so. I was not going to die that day. There was too much left to do, besides I hadn’t gotten mortgage insurance yet. I was thinking about my family. Macabre thoughts. I imagined my dying words would be that line from the old teenage car-wreck song…”tell Laurie I love her, bum, bum, bum.” I could not imagine my son growing up without a father, not fair. I saw a butterfly flit by and I heard the ravens calling. To them it was just a normal day on the mountain, just like any other afternoon. To me it seemed the fury of nature was being unleased on us puny humans. We did not belong there.

Safety was still a mile below, in the trees on the other side of the saddle. I felt the electric tension build again and then I heard sharp crack behind me. I whirled around, I thought Allan had thrown a rock. It was later I realized that lightening had popped very close by. Then the hail started. Time for rain gear. It seemed to take me forever to get my poncho out and I couldn’t find the head hole and I couldn’t get my pack back on. Meanwhile the temperature dropped rapidly, just like the Park Service pamphlet said could happen on the mountain. It became cold and nasty. I was in shorts and the hail was pelting my legs. It stung. Another painful message from the Mountain Gods. And far below out in the desert the sun was obscenely shinning. Finally the trail became less steep and I could run. I began to sing, a comforting, spiritual song. I watched the hail bounce up out of the fields of alpine flowers; I thought how beautiful it was. I felt strong and sure and knew I could run for twenty miles if necessary. I got below the storm and for the first time felt confident that I was going to get off that mountain.

I went over an edge and could no longer see the five people far behind me. They were sticking close together and unbeknownst to me three of them had been struck by lightening. Not large bolts of lightening coursing down from above, but ground lightening (static electricity on a very large scale). Large painful pricks in the head, strong enough to knock them for a loop. During an electrical storm it is best to keep apart but they were doing what humans do best, helping each other in difficult times. Probably keeping close increased their chances of getting struck.

I finally got down to the trees and waited for the others to arrive. I hoped that they all would make it. I did not want to go back up the mountain after someone and I didn’t know whether I could or would. But fortunately everyone made it. The hail stopped and we began to walk and talk together. With laughter, tears, and anger we discharged, just like the lightening. Happy to be unhurt, we all felt changed in some way by the five amazing hours on Wheeler Peak.

Desert Notes- Eastern Mojave

Desert Notes (April 1989)
by Michael Ellis

I was in the Eastern Mojave Desert in what is known as the “empty triangle”. This is the loneliest area in all of California. I just spent a week with a group exploring Anza-Borrego Desert in southern California. I was scheduled to meet my next group just south of Death Valley in the tiny town of Tecopa. I had a day to spend in between the trips and so I was scouting out the Castle Buttes. This dramatic erosion area rises abruptly high above the desert floor; it has fascinated me for years. But I never had the time to explore it until now.

I had my trusty Volkswagen Van. VW’s were the first two-wheel drive vehicles to traverse the length of the Baja peninsula before the route was paved. They do well on rough roads and in desert conditions, but they take a little more skill and attention than the modern four-wheel drive vehicles.

I turned off the Ivanpah Road onto the Hart Mine Rd and traveled along an old railroad bed. I noticed one set of car tracks and one set of mountain bike tracks both fairly fresh. After five miles I turned off this road onto a side spur for another mile. There were no tracks on this road and hadn’t been for days. I then turned left onto the dirt trail that led to Castle Buttes, seven miles away. The road was not too bad. There was soft sand in some areas and I had to keep the van moving quickly through it. Sand was my greatest fear. I have been bogged down in it and you can get really stuck.
I stopped to read my guide. “The Castle Butte area is the most remote section of the California desert. If you want to get away from it all then this is the place.” Oh boy, I was feeling good. The desert sky was clear and I was surrounded by thousands of bizarre Joshua Trees. I turned the radio on to a country music station out of Bullhead, Arizona. Twanging guitar flew out my window, the perfect music for a perfect day.

I passed an old mine and the road got rougher. There were some big ruts that I had to carefully straddle. Then I went through more soft sand, fishtailing up a ravine. But I was a good driver and I was getting closer to the Buttes. They had been beckoning me for years and I was finally going to see them.

Oh God, Patsy Cline came on. I turned the radio way up. It was too much; it couldn’t be any better. I was way out in the desert, totally alone, a perfect spring day and Pasty Cline was belting her heart out about no-good men.

She started to fade out, a little static-y. No, no Patsy come back! I reached to adjust the radio just as I was going up a rutted incline. My attention wandered just for a moment. Suddenly the underside of the van smacked into something with a loud impressive thump. Ouch. Patsy kept singing as my oil light flashed on a second later. I looked in my rear view mirror to see black oily smoke pouring out of the engine compartment.

I immediately turned off the van and walked back to the rear. I had knocked the oil filter off and all the oil had poured onto the desert floor. A very sick feeling came over me. This was not good. I walked back to the guilty rock to retrieve my filter. Bashed and heavily dented it didn’t appear to have any holes in it. That was good, because although I carried alot of spare equipment, I didn’t happen to have an extra oil filter.

Jeez. Ok, Michael don’t panic. I forced my rational mind to take over. My emotional side was getting nervous. There hadn’t been any cars here in days. I was twelve miles from the nearest road, a road that had very little traffic on it. I was 45 miles from the nearest paved road and probably seventy miles from the nearest tow truck. I had food and fuel to last a week, 20 gallons of water and several six-packs of beer. I certainly wasn’t going to die but it also appeared that wasn’t going to be easy to get the van out of there. My situation was bleak but not desperate.

Suddenly I began to laugh because I have had enough car trouble in the desert to last several lifetimes. Any sane person who has had my experiences with tow trucks, blown engines, fried fuel injectors, broken clutch cables, clogged gas filters and faulty ignition switches and spent days in towns like Nogales, Indio and Barstow would never drive through the desert again. In fact they probably should probably never leave home. I guess I am a slow learner.

I carefully beat the filter back into shape and screwed it back on. It didn’t quite seat properly but I was hoping for a miracle. I had to meet my next group in five hours, 150 miles away. I replaced the lost oil and started the engine. The oil light didn’t even flicker off once; the filter leaked.

Oh boy. What now? If I could just get going downhill, I ‘d coast for a couple of miles. Any desert walking that I could avoid would be good, but to run an engine without oil is stupid. I decided to go for it. I gave the van a push and hopped in. I started the engine every once in while to get me through tough spots. I flew, bouncing over rocks that I had carefully avoided an hour earlier. My head smacked into the roof several times. Everything in the van was flying around. When I finally stopped, it looked like a hurricane had ripped through all my possessions. Everything was on the floor.

Now it was time to walk. Fortunately it was only 80 or so. If it had been hotter I would have waited until late afternoon. A person can sweat out a quart of water per hour hiking in the midday desert heat. Every year people die walking from their stranded vehicle.

I packed some food, spare clothes, flashlight, map, and address book. I grabbed a couple of sodas, filled my canteen and then lugged an additional 2 gallons of water. I didn’t plan on dying of thirst. Paranoid??? You bet. I even had iodine tablets to purify water in a cattle trough if necessary. But I have been thirsty — really thirsty — and I don’t ever want that experience again. Right before starting I drank as much water as I could.

During the first two hours of walking I stopped every 15 minutes to pee. At least I wasn’t thirsty.

It was strange hiking through a forest of Joshua Trees. These queer plants are woody members of the lily family, very unique in the botanical world. They made early visitors nervous. Colonel Fremont said that “their stiff and ungraceful forms make them the most repulsive member of the vegetable kingdom.” Another traveler said “one can scarcely find a term for ugliness that is not apt for this plant. A landscape filled with Joshua Trees has a nightmare effect even in broad daylight.”

To the early Mormons traveling from Salt Lake City to San Bernadino the trees reminded them of Joshua. The forked branches, like the Prophet’s arms, rise up to the sky and God in supplication. I have always loved Joshua Trees. This was fortunate because I was surrounded by 500 square miles of them.

I walked quickly and didn’t see a soul, only cows. Sometimes I’d hear a car. But it always was a dust devil — a tiny tornado — that would swirl down, spinning and dancing across the desert plain. Once one came right through me, a refreshing kiss from the wind goddess.

After ten miles I finally reached the Ivanpah Rd just as a truck flew by. I screamed, whistled and shook my water jug. The teenagers in the back just waved; they didn’t get it. That was the last car I saw for three hours. My plan was simple: catch a ride with anyone, going anywhere. North led to Nipton, a tiny railroad community and south led to a phone booth out in the middle of nowhere.

I realized that when I didn’t meet the group at 5:00 they would call my home. I didn’t want anyone worrying needlessly, so I began the seven-mile trek to the phone. It was getting late and it dawned on me that I might be spending the night outside. The previous evening it had dropped to 40 degrees. I wasn’t prepared. Maybe I could snuggle up with a cow or two.

After an hour of hiking there was a glint in the distance, probably just another water trough. No, it was an RV. I must confess that the sight of a giant RV in a wilderness area usually elicits an automatic negative response in me but not this one. I had very positive feelings about this Winnebago. It was still two miles away and a mile up a side road. It was risky leaving the main drag but only one car had passed me the entire day. Just before I reached the RV a truck came by. A young couple from Nevada was out for a drive. Sure, they would give me a lift.

At Nipton I called my group. Then I phoned all the tow trucks in a 100-mile radius and couldn’t contact one. Everyone was busy with Easter Sunday. I thanked the couple for their help but they wouldn’t leave me.

We went to their house and several gas stations where we loaded up with dinner, oil, gaskets, filters, and silicone sealants. We drove back out to my van. At midnight under the cold desert sky we discovered the threads on the engine were stripped and the VW oil filter could not be screwed on tight. We tried plugging the hole with silicone; that didn’t work. We were just about to give up when one of the other filters fit snugly. We put oil in the van, started it and no leaks. I was actually going to drive out of there.

During my time with this couple, they threw cans and trash out the window and told me of the joys of off-road motorcycle racing through the desert. How could I explain about conservation, desert ecology and environmental ethics? I kept my mouth shut and thanked the desert gods for sending these two kind people my way.

Mount Diablo

After a winter rain, the air is cleansed. And often a cold north wind follows the storm, sweeping through and freshening the world. The smog scatters, and for a few days we breathe the air of our pre-industrial ancestors. The visibility is superb and seems only limited by our imagination.

The next time this rare event happens, you should leap out of bed early, call in sick, and drive up Mt. Diablo in Contra Costa County. From this peak more land can be seen than any other place on earth except Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa.

Mt. Diablo is not a big mountain, 3849 feet high, but it is surrounded by low hills so the view is not obscured. You can see the entire snow-covered crest of the Sierra Nevada for a length of over 400 miles. Using binoculars the careful viewer can even find Half Dome in Yosemite Valley. Amid the rich farmland of the great Central Valley the defunct Rancho Seco Nuclear Power plant stands guard over the rice fields.

Along the flanks of the mountain the booming Interstate Highway 680 corridor and mushrooming communities of Pleasanton, Livermore, Pittsburg, and Concord illustrate uncontrolled suburban sprawl. The World War II mothball fleet and the Concord Naval Weapons Center are just to the northwest. In the mid-distance a tiny volcano, the Sutter Buttes, rises out of the valley like a “blister on a new paint job.”

The inner and outer Coast Ranges run north and south like long skinny caterpillars and seem to disappear on the horizon. Mt. Tamalpais, Mt. St. Helena, Fremont Peak, and Mt. Hamilton are the prominent pinnacles jutting above the haze. Even the Farallon Islands 25 miles out to sea are visible. On an exceptionally clear day, Mt. Lassen, 185 miles to the north, caps the scene. In all you can see 40,000 square miles and 35 of California’s 58 counties.

Early explorers trekking aver the Sierra used Mt. Diablo as a guide post to San Francisco. In 1851 while the rest of California headed to the gold fields, pragmatic state officials chose this peak as the center for surveying the public domain. The Mt. Diablo Base and Meridian Lines are now used to legally define about two thirds of the real estate in California.

Mt. Diablo became a state park in 1931 but one of its most interesting features has nothing to do with natural history. During the early days of aviation, pilots navigated in the day by following geologic features and highways. At night they used the stars and city lights. Standard Oil of California (now Chevron) recognized that the success of the fledgling aviation industry would result in increased fuel sales. So the oil company built, installed and operated about 20 aircraft “light houses” up and down the West Coast. These 10 million candlepower aerial navigation beacons could be seen for 175 miles.

In 1928, the famed aviator Charles Lindberg officially lit the beacon on top of Mt. Diablo. For the next 13 years a photocell automatically turned the light on and off. Then on Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked. The lights were darkened all along the West Coast.

After the war the development of radar made the navigational aids obsolete. Only one of the 20 beacons was ever turned back on. The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association wanted a fitting tribute to those who lost their lives in the sneak attack. On December 7, 1964, the survivors gathered at the peak of Mt. Diablo and as the sun set they turned on the beacon in memory of their lost buddies. Now on every Pearl Harbor Day this ceremony is repeated.

The mirrors have corroded and the light has lost some of its original brilliance. But it is still extraordinarily bright and as it flashes every ten seconds it is visible for 60 miles. The beacon shines against the darkness of war and reminds us to remember the innocent victims. May it never happen again. Peace.


Ah sweet, blessed rain, the gage at my house said 4 inches. This beautiful weather brings out some of my favorite critters… the newts. In between storms last Friday night I took some folks on a night hike at Muir Beach. Newts were everywhere. In fact it was difficult to walk at times, there were hundreds of them and 90% were munching on earthworms. Some of the newts were totally obese and one I picked up actually threw up an earthworm in my hand….gross. We saw several pairs of newts fighting over the same worm. It was a game of tug of worm and the worm lost every time.

Newts (and salamanders) are distinguished from lizards by their clawless feet, lack of ear openings and moist rather than scaly skin. They are slow and easy to catch. Two species are found here — the California and the Rough skinned Newt. Both have backs that are deep red brown, almost black and an underside of pale yellow to startling orange or even red. The skin is rough and warty and becomes more so the longer the animal is out of the water.

This skin contains a poison called tetrodotoxin, the same chemical found in puffer fish. The bright underside of the animal advertises its toxicity. The only animals I know that can survive eating a newt are feral pigs. The newts average 2 3 inches between the front and back legs (about 6 inches overall) and are often found far from permanent water during the rainy season. They feed on earthworms, snails, insects, slugs, spiders, sowbugs, and will occasionally scavenge.

Male newts are easily distinguished from females. Pick up the animal it won’t bite you, but be sure to wash your hands afterwards and turn it over. The feet of the males are usually roughened, enabling it to grasp the slippery female as they mate.

Look between the rear legs at the vent. If the area is swollen, it is male. This swelling is caused by the presence of a spermatophore, a package of sperm. After an elaborate, stereotyped courtship ritual that involves much clasping, piggy back riding and the inhibition of female movement by special skin glands in the chin of the male, the act culminates with the male walking over the top of the female and depositing the package of sperm right in front of her nose.

She promptly walks over the “gift” and picks it up with her vent. She stores the sperm and uses it later to fertilize her eggs when she deposits them on submerges vegetation in a stream.

Newts are amphibians, one of the oldest vertebrate groups. This group apparently evolved from the lobe finned fishes that were trapped in temporary fresh water ponds around 350 million years ago. Fins became walking appendages facilitating movement from drying pond to drying pond and lungs replaced gills as a mechanism for oxygen extraction. Unlike their descendants, the reptiles, amphibians have failed to sever their ties with water.

Indeed the word, amphibian, literally means “double” (amphi) “lives” (bios). Two lives — one in water and one on land. It is always necessary for these animals to return to water (or very moist areas) to lay their eggs.

Because the skin is permeable to water and can dry out very rapidly, amphibians are restricted to damp areas and cannot live in salt water. Understandably the arid West has fewer species that the wetter East. Still, they are distributed throughout the world except for the polar areas and some oceanic islands. Even deserts support some species adapted to seasonal rains. They escape the searing heat by digging deep into the earth.

California has 25 kinds of salamanders and 20 kinds of frogs and toads. In Marin County, the roster includes: the Western Toad, Red legged Frog, Foothill Yellow legged Frog, Bullfrog, Pacific Tree Frog, Pacific Giant Salamander, Ensatina Salamander, California Slender Salamander, Arboreal Salamander and our two newts.

So where do I get most of my information? From the newts-paper, of course. What do you call it when two newts mate? For-newt-cating. One of my least favorite entertainers is Wayne Newt-on. Favorite football player is Newt Rockne. Most of you probably agree that my mind must be in newt-tral to write this stuff.