There is something that never ceases to amaze me in the mountains in Spring. It is the number of insects that you find everywhere right up to the summits and particularly in the snow. Predominant among these tiny mountaineers, or so it seems to me, is the ladybird.
Maybe it’s just that their black-dotted redness stands out against the white background of the snow, because you will certainly find quite a variety and number of other insects, but there does appear to be a preponderance of ladybirds. And regardless of whether or not there is snow. I recall one day in late Spring several years ago arriving at the top of La Pinareja, 2195m, (the “head” of La Mujer Muerta as seen from Cotos) where there was no snow but literally thousands of ladybirds. It was difficult to walk without stepping on them, let alone sit down, such were the numbers of little red bodies moving about the rocks. Well, on the rocks, ok, you might say, but what on earth are ladybirds doing on the snow? Not a lot, as far as I have been able to observe. They are generally not to be seen in movement, though they do move. You will often find two, three or more of them huddled together on a small oasis of moss or lichen ripped from the rock, suggesting that snow is not really their scene. And of course it isn’t.
Another question that might be asked is how do they get there? Well, perhaps surprisingly, ladybirds have wings under that apparently hard outer shell and, despite their appearance, are flying insects. Furthermore, wind conditions in the mountains mean that a great variety of insects are to be found far from their typical habitats and, yes, on the snow in high exposed areas.
Now this leads me to something of a dilemma. For over twenty-five years I have tried to practise the doctrine of ahimsa or non-violence towards other living creatures and particularly towards sentient beings. This practice goes from basic vegetarianism to that of Buddhist monks who carry a small brush with them in order to gently remove insects from their path and so avoid stepping on and perhaps killing them. Personally I don’t carry a brush with me (!) nor do I look too closely at the ground in front of me as I walk, though maybe I do try to avoid stepping unnecessarily on little guys who stray across my path. But there’s the rub.. One of the things I most love to do is to climb and ski the high couloirs of Peñalara – known locally as tubos – in April and May. Just when the ladybirds appear. While climbing, kicking steps in the snow, moving slowly upwards, it’s not too difficult to avoid them, although sometimes when there are many of them it requires some effort. But when skiing down, on terrain which is often quite steep and where some velocity is inevitable, avoiding ladybirds in the snow is utterly impossible..
I do not know for sure what effect being skied over has on the ladybirds or other small insects. But it can hardly be good for them. And don’t think of light powder snow here.. it’s late Spring, this is granular melt-freeze snow, known to skiers as corn. It can be great to ski if you catch it at the right moment but it’s also very abrasive in contact with skin. For the little guys it can’t be much fun. Probably more like slaughter in fact. The passage of skis in these conditions also displaces considerable quantities of snow, sometimes in the form of small avalanches known as wet sluffs, so from the ladybirds’ point of view even if you don’t get run over directly you may be buried under large quantities of snow..
Like I said before, slaughter, some days probably mass slaughter.
For more on ladybirds – or ladybugs as they are known in the U.S. – in the mountains, look here.