These Animal Migrations Are Huge — and Invisible

These Animal Migrations Are Huge — and Invisible

Last week, ladybugs briefly took over the news cycle.

Meteorologists at the National Weather Service were looking over radar images in California on the night of June 4 when they spotted what looked like a wide swath of rain. But there were no clouds.

The meteorologists contacted an amateur weather-spotter directly under the mysterious disturbance. He wasn’t getting soaked by rain. Instead, he saw ladybugs. Everywhere.

Radar apparently had picked up a cloud of migrating ladybugs spread across 80 miles, with a dense core ten miles wide floating 5,000 feet to 9,000 feet in the air. As giant as the swarm was, the meteorologists lost track of it. The ladybugs disappeared into the night.

Compared to other animal migrations, the migrations of insects are a scientific mystery. It’s easy to spot a herd of wildebeest making its way across the savanna. Insects, even in huge numbers, move from place to place without much notice. One day you look around, and ladybugs are everywhere.

“The migrations themselves are totally invisible,” said Jason Chapman, an ecologist at the University of Exeter in Britain.

Dr. Chapman and his colleagues are using radar to bring insect migrations to light. The scientists help run a unique network of small radar stations in southern England designed to scan the sky 24 hours a day, spotting insects flying overhead.

“These radars are fantastic,” said Dr. Chapman. “We have a lot of information about every individual insect that flies over overhead, including a measure of the shape and a measure of their size.”

Recently, Dr. Chapman and his colleagues decided to scan their images for one kind of insect in particular, known as hoverflies.

You’ve probably seen a hoverfly, but you may have thought you were looking at a wasp or a bee. Hoverflies are harmless, but they have evolved to mimic stinging insects as a way to scare away predators.

Hoverflies provide two big ecological benefits. As larvae, they defend gardens and farms by eating aphids. As adults, they pollinate flowers as they eat nectar and pollen.

“I don’t think you could create a more useful insect,” said Dr. Chapman.

Scientists had clues that some species of hoverflies migrate, but they knew little about the timing or the scale of their movements.

The insects are important not just for the prey they eat and the pollen they carry. They themselves are tiny packages of nutrients. Many are eaten by predators; the others fertilize the soil after they die. They comprise about 80 tons of biomass, packed with 35 million calories, the researchers estimate.

“I think that people will be amazed by the scale of the migrations and the significance of the ecosystem services,” said Dr. Chapman.

Other insect species, such as ladybugs, may be making similarly mammoth migrations in other parts of the world. But there are very few researchers using radar to track them. In Australia, scientists are scanning for locusts, and Dr. Chapman is currently in China helping researchers set up a new insect-tracking network.

Understanding these migrations is all the more important, Dr. Chapman said, because many non-migrating insect populations are on the decline. By contrast, hoverfly migrations have stayed stable for the past decade.

It’s possible that they’re less vulnerable because they aren’t stuck in one place, vulnerable to pollution or climate change.

“These migratory hoverflies, in our part of the world at least, are doing rather well,” he said. “And so they may be playing an increasingly important role as we go into the future.”

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