Nathaniel Dolton-Thornton: What’s the story behind the Ladybug Hotel?
Jeremy Brautman: I started hiking around Redwood Regional Park really regularly in 2013. I was going through a hard time, and I discovered that I consistently felt better after a walk in the woods. I first encountered the ladybugs that fall. We’d had a good amount of rain, so everything was wet and green and enchanted-feeling, and then here was this additional unexpected element: legions of ladybugs (technically called “a loveliness of ladybugs”). I was captivated and began spending more time near the ladybug encampments. Right around Thanksgiving, we had a frost. When I next saw the ladybugs, they were frozen over. I immediately built the Ladybug Hotel, and the next week I “smuggled” it into the park in a duffel bag.
I didn’t really think much about what I was doing at the time. I just did it.
I think the story of the ladybugs is to stay curious, be open, and keep exploring your world. I think, for me personally, there’s also been a story of nature as a place to recharge and heal. The ladybugs don’t really need me or the hotel to get through the winter; they’ve been doing this for ages just fine on their own. But in retrospect, that first year, I needed them! Sometimes it’s good to have a project that initially makes no sense to anyone (even yourself) but you just do it, in a recurring way, because it feels joyful. There’s a lot of discord and disconnection in our modern urban existence. Some people put their phones in Do Not Disturb mode or do various kinds of detoxes and retreats. I built a Ladybug Hotel.
NDT: How did you make the hotel?
JB: The Ladybug Hotel is basically already there—that’s sort of the whimsy of the whole project. I’m just taking a picture of a hollow in a downed tree trunk that’s covered in ladybugs and calling it a sauna. The precise actual hotel was formerly a bird house. I believe it’s made of cedar or redwood. Originally, I put clear PVC tubes inside for the ladybugs. (I thought they’d want to be able to see each other.) But once it was out there, the vinyl felt wrong. I gathered hollow reeds and moss, removed the PVC, and remodeled. Last year, I got a locker membership at The Compound, and I redid the interior by cutting bamboo in their woodshop. It’s classy now!
NDT: How have hikers responded to the hotel? And park staff?
JB: People really dig the hotel! After the Bold Italic story, East Bay Parks had record attendance on their ladybug hike—and most of the attendees (including tons of children) had never been to the park. I enjoy getting emails from parents contemplating their kids’ first hikes.
I don’t know how officials feel about the Ladybug Hotel. I keep a low profile. The hotel isn’t in an obvious spot. There’s a lot of whimsy in the idea of a ladybug hotel, and I like giving people the chance to imagine it themselves. I also didn’t want to potentially endanger the ladybugs with too much foot traffic.
The majority of people will see the ladybugs, but not the Ladybug Hotel. It’s really interesting to hang out nearby, and watch and listen for reactions. Some people walk right through and don’t seem to notice that there are thousands of red dots moving around the landscape. Some people stop and look from tree to fern to log and say “Omg. Omg. Omg.” Kids get really excited and ask tons of questions.
NDT: Have you always been interested in the nonhuman world? You call yourself a “nemophilist”—how did that start?
JB: I’ve always been a words guy. I came late to science. Now I’m making up for lost time by trying to learn everything I can. I find great old field guides at used book stores. (One ‘upshot’ of less people reading books these days is that there’s so many terrific books for the rest of us.) Nature and storytelling really go hand in hand. Fabre’s Book of Insects is a wonderful read.
Nemophilist started soon after the ladybugs. I felt this sense of awe: if THIS is happening right here in Oakland, what ELSE is happening?! I’ve been wandering (or “haunting”) the woods ever since. I’m sure I saw the word nemophilist somewhere, looked up its meaning and thought: there’s a word that means this?
NDT: What’s your favorite part of the annual ladybug convergence?
JB: To keep warm, the ladybugs pile up—covering fallen trees and tall reeds. If you stop and watch for a bit, you’ll see the piles moving. One of my favorite things is watching them (harmlessly) tumble off their piles. It makes the tiniest sound and is just sort of a silly thing to see from a pair of human eyes, anyway.
It’s all been a really great lesson in stopping to notice the small things and taking some cues from the natural world. I’m paying attention to life in a different way than I was previously.
NDT: What does it feel like to see a “loveliness of ladybugs?”
JB: I’d describe the experience of encountering ladybugs en masse as: Joy! Humming with life.