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Photo by John Horning

Of ladybugs and public lands

Linking an aggregation of ladybugs to our national heritage

February 14, 2018

On my twins’ birthday last year, I offered to make any kind of cake they wanted. They chose a ladybug. When the day arrived, we celebrated by drawing and painting ladybugs and eating pizza on ladybug paper plates and ladybug napkins. Best of all was the homemade cake, which met the aesthetic demands of 3-year-olds—anatomical accuracy—and the culinary demands of the assembled adults.

Though a child’s sense of wonder is a powerful thing to behold, I’d like to think that my own fascination with the little black and red beauties had something to do with their choice. That’s why I was ecstatic to witness a gathering of thousands of ladybugs that occurred recently on the rocks, yuccas and oaks at the very top of Atalaya, the mountain peak within the Santa Fe National Forest that rises to the east of and looks down on Santa Fe.

It turns out these ladybug gatherings actually have a name: an aggregation. Ladybug aggregations are a once-in-a-lifetime event that happen in the fall, as the weather turns. The culmination of their existence is to find these places—places they have never been, guided only by the pheromones left by their progenitors. For me, this is a kind of magic.

Year after year, ladybugs converge in the same spots. They make these pilgrimages with a kind of fidelity that inspires me. Although ladybugs’ life cycle is just a year, they set an example for all us that resonates long after this year’s generation is gone.

Fidelity and commitment to sacred places are values we should all share when it comes to protecting our public lands. These lands currently are under siege by an administration and Congress that are seemingly indifferent to the role ladybugs, and so many other species, play in maintaining vibrant and healthy ecosystems.

Ladybugs are necessary insects to have around as they prey on aphids, an insect that can destroy gardens and crops. These iconic beetles are our best friends for healthy plants, something my boys know from their experience in our garden. Unfortunately, like so many creatures in the natural world, ladybugs seem to be in decline.

Even worse, if more of our public lands are sold to the highest bidder, I am certain ladybugs would be far less common. I have spent my entire adult life working to protect our public lands. Amazingly, I never thought to link ladybugs to the national heritage that is our public lands.

ladybugs on rock wildearth guardians

An aggregation of ladybugs adds some color to a boulder. Photo by John Horning.

But, of course, our public lands aren’t just critical for aggregations of ladybugs and other insects, they’re also vital for the timeless migrations of pronghorn, deer and elk, and populations of hundreds of endangered creatures whose very survival depends on our public lands.

Aggregations and migrations have occurred for eons. If we heed their wisdom, they imbue our planet with a sacred quality. So to do our own journeys—whether short walks, day floats or weeks-long backpacking trips.

Our nation’s public lands belong to all of us, providing us with opportunities to experience grace. Public lands are as essential to our democracy as is our Constitution, in part because they are open to all of us regardless of our status, abilities or beliefs and, in part, because they afford us opportunities to experience liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

My wife often asks me how I stay optimistic in a world with so much upheaval and loss. Whatever optimism I have arises, in large part, from my experiences of the fragile beauty I find in the natural world. The evening after I returned from Atalaya, I shared a short video of the gathering of ladybugs with my boys. They both looked at me, jaws dropped, and said in earnest unison, “We need to go to Atalaya to see the ladybugs.”

The mountain is a little too high and a little too far for my now 4-year-old boys, but the challenge of preserving our national lands—and the wolves, ancient forests and ladybugs that depend on them—is within our grasp. We just need your voice to join us in defending them.

John Horning

About the Author

John Horning | Executive Director, WildEarth Guardians

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