The Swarm by Jessie Szalay

            When I was seven I went to sleepaway camp, where I fell and got eight stitches in my knee, never knew with whom to sit in the dining hall, and drew a spectacular picture of a ladybug. The wings were smooth red with seven spots; the pronotum was black with white markings, deceptively eye-like, like an orca whale; and the head was small with friendly eyes and antennae. I drew it on the last day of camp with a sticky bandage on my leg while the other, braver children climbed the old California oak. All week long I had sat under inspirational posters in the dining hall: ladders of success with rungs labeled, “I won’t,” “I can,” “I did.” Finally, I thought, as I looked at my gorgeous ladybug, I had really done something at camp.

            My friend Katie had a pet ladybug in second grade. She kept it in the pastel box in her desk at school, and when she was bored she would slide the box open and watch the ladybug – its name was Lady – crawl around between the colors. She lost Lady somehow. She remembers the shock of it, getting to school and finding only vivid crayons, frantically searching under the desk until her teacher caught her. Lady hadn’t even left tracks in the pastels’ oily residue.

            My friend Sarah’s parents dressed her as a ladybug for Halloween as a toddler. My friend Bethany had a black halter dress dotted with them; she wore it to high school graduation.

            That was what we knew about ladybugs when they attacked.

            It was our freshman year at college. We’d been on the campus that sat in an Ohio cornfield for a few weeks. It was my first time east of the Rocky Mountains and I was confused about everything, from the humidity to if it was humanely possible to read 200 pages of Edith Wharton in less than forty-eight hours. One thing I did like was my spacious dorm room – until the ladybugs appeared on my window.

            I came home from class one Thursday afternoon and they were there. On the bottom half of my window was an orange swoop of knobbly shine, as if someone had cut a yoga mat into the shape of a great wave. The mass was mostly still but for the occasional flutter or jerk. One opened its wings and snapped them shut furiously. In that glimpse of crisp movement, and the skeletal creepiness underneath, I realized that my room had been invaded by insects. It took several more moments for me to realize that the insects were ladybugs.

            I moved closer. There were hundreds, quite possibly a thousand, but because they were  ladybugs I didn’t scream or stand frozen the way I might have if they were bees or flies or even rolly-pollies. Ladybugs are sweet and pretty. Ladybugs, in many cultures, are good luck. They’re not bugs that you kill, but ones that you shelter and love in your pastel box.

            The bugs on my window were a particular type of ladybug called Asian lady beetles or Japanese ladybirds. Ladybugs hibernate over the winter; Asian lady beetles like to do it in people’s houses. In the wild, they weather the winter by clinging to the sunny, southwestern  sides of cliffs. In cliffless areas, like rural Ohio, they come into houses. Light-colored homes remind them of rocks, but they’re not too picky and will cling en masse to most windows and walls. They are especially fond of screens because the netting traps heat.

            Because people like ladybugs – they’re cute, so round and bright and spotted – one or two would probably be tolerated by most people for the winter. That’s what happens with the common, red seven-spotted type, but the Asian lady beetles are highly social. They excrete pheromones, bringing hundreds of friends to their hibernating spots – like the excellent one in my room.

            Seasons start early for animals; like earthquakes, they can feel them coming. So though in mid-September Ohio was sweltering and I’d stand slack-jawed in front of the air conditioner, the Asian lady beetles were preparing for fall, taking up residence while I was still hanging my Radiohead posters. But since it was still warm, they were not yet hibernating. The insects buzzed about the dorms. They flew around our heads while we studied, they dropped from the ceiling onto our faces while we slept, we woke to find them crawling in our sheets as if our bodies were mountain trails.

            My friend Katie said she woke every twenty minutes convinced she was covered in them, feeling phantom legs scurrying across her skin. Sarah threw away all the food that her parents bought her when they dropped her off, even though we told her that bugs can’t get into factory-sealed Easy Mac packets. Sometimes I thought I heard their buzzing in class, those wings that snapped like a ruler hitting a desk, loudly for their miniature scale.

            They were all but impossible to get rid of. We sprayed and shooed, but, having excellent vision and memories, they returned. Bethany told all the girls on the hall that she had the brilliant idea to vacuum them up. We all took turns with her little vacuum, delighted in lifting the hose to see patches of vacant screen, and tossed the bags in the dumpster outside, triumphant. A day later, they were back and not even dusty.

            “What’s going on with these ladybugs?” We asked older students, professors, townspeople, dining hall workers. “How can we get rid of them?”

            “First of all,” said everyone. “You know they’re not real ladybugs.”

            Of course, they absolutely were real ladybugs; in Japan, they are the definition of the insect. What everyone meant was that they were different than the ladybugs of our childhoods in two ways: they were bad and they were ugly. Unlike the common seven-spotted ladybugs, they were not black and red with a touch of white all over. They were mustard colored, burnt orange, or brownish, with entirely too many spots. Like their hibernating behavior, their spots had no self control. Rather than seven or nine elegantly spaced, 1950s housedress-like spots, the Asian lady beetle’s are placed willy-nilly, too close together, splotchy and large and inconsistent, up to sixteen on one pair of wings. Alternatively, sometimes they lack spots all together, making them creepy albino bugs and not to be trusted.

            The color difference made the whole situation easier. When Sarah told us she’d been trapping them in duct tape, folding it all up into a slick gray square, and throwing it away, we were elated. But what if they were the ladybugs of Halloween costumes and happy birthday cakes? Swarms of “real” ladybugs look like plump cherry tomatoes on a vine. I doubt we’d tolerate it if they, too, invaded our homes, but we might feel guilty smashing and suffocating them in tape. The Asian lady beetle’s pukey coloring made it more okay, somehow. When we did manage to kill them, we were not only ridding our dorm rooms of pests, but the world off an ugly type of ladybug. We were thinning out the gene pool, letting only the attractive survive.

            But compared to a mud-colored rolly polly, shiny orange ladybugs are rather pretty. It’s true that some of our beauty preferences are evolutionary – symmetrical faces and lustrous hair signify good genes. But much of what we consider lovely is as arbitrary as the color of a ladybug. Fat goes in and out of style with the centuries, as does the ideal size of a woman’s breasts, hips, feet. Ankles are erogenous or not thought about at all. Real men wear their hair long; real men wear their hair short. Beards are low class; beards are manly. Tans signify health, tans signify sickness; they signify wealth, poverty. Muscles are the same, as are callused hands. Our current preference for hairlessness makes no sense at all. 

            In truth, “real” ladybugs are preferred to Asian ones because they are the only type that eat aphids consistently. Centuries ago, those benefits made them beautiful to us. But no one talked about aphids on my college campus. Instead, they denied the Asian lady beetles membership in their very species because of their coloring – which was made ugly by their bad behavior. So I wondered, what would happen if supermodels swarmed the world, committed acts of violence? Would tall, thin women with even features be thought of with dread, with worry that they’d soon ambush our homes, infiltrate our sleep, terrorize us, snapping around our heads? Would we switch to appreciating short, fat women with big noses?

            In addition to being relative, beauty must also be rare. In lush Ohio, it took work for me to appreciate grass or trees, whereas a hundred-foot tall oak tree in dry California inspired contemplation, delicately stroking of the bark. An orange ladybug on its own might be lovely; by the hundreds, they were unsettling sights and annoying pests. I sat on my dorm room bed, stared at the swarm and tried to see beauty. Then, I stood up and got a piece of printer paper. With it, I scooped up dozens of Asian lady beetles from my window screen. Under the window was a vent. I shoved the paper into it, and the insects were sucked down to the dorm furnace where their little legs singed and their orange wings cracked in thermal blasts. The ones that went down the vent didn’t come back.

            Our world is too big, our preferences too scary – we need boxes and classifications, for who knows what would happen if we went around thinking and everything and everyone was beautiful and worthy. From China to Germany, a ladybug is a sign of good luck. What are college students to do with all those charms on their windows but shove them down the vent?

            For life, we seem to think, should not be saturated. There is only room for a few standout things, a few bugs worthy of baby outfits and balloons, worth keeping in pastel boxes. Butterflies, red ladybugs, maybe a glowworm here and there. There is space on my paper for one perfectly drawn ladybug at summer camp. There is not space for hundreds of orange Asian lady beetles, especially not on my window. 


PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF MARCUS COOPER.