Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home,
Your house is on fire,
Your children shall burn!
Except little Nan
Who sits in her pan
Weaving gold laces as fast as she can.
This old nursery rhyme dates back to the Middle Ages. Farmers then would burn the stubble of their season's crops in the late fall, and children would sing this rhyme as they helped. One of the purposes of burning the crop stubble was to eliminate insect pests and their larvae that might otherwise winter over...but nobody wanted the beloved ladybug to meet that fate...hence the nursery rhyme. I have observed the first lady bugs in my garden for about two weeks now. At first they were here and there...now they are all over the place. I am lucky. But then again, I don't leave it to luck alone. I make them feel at home here.
I know there are quite a few gardeners and backyard scientists here on DKos, so I thought this topic might pique your interest. The lady bug is an important insect in the world of "beneficial predators", but it also seems to be just one of those bugs that everyone feels comfortable with. You might not pick up an earwig or a common beetle, and who doesn't shy away from yellow jackets or other bees? But at one time or another, I'll bet most of us have gathered a lady bug into the palm of our hand, watched it crawl to the end of our finger and take flight...without any qualms at all.
Perhaps we even recited that nursery rhyme as it did so. They are uniquely harmless, devoid of any off-putting characteristics, and even endearing as the insect Kingdom goes.
The LA Times published an very interesting article yesterday about an ongoing research project that has conscripted backyard gardeners from across the country to participate, and it's very worthy of a read:
After reading the above article, I thought I'd do a diary on the lady bug...after all, this site's official color is orange, and I love to do diaries about esoteric topics.
Did you know....
Ladybugs can live as long as two to three years? That's getting a little long in the tooth for the insect world.
Ladybugs are not one solitary species...there are several different species of ladybugs. As in about 5,000 different species. Of those, between 300-400 species live in North America.
A single ladybug may lay several hundreds of eggs on plants that are being attacked by their primary food source...aphids. When those eggs hatch, each larva will consume around 5000 aphids during its 3 to 6 week long larval stage.
Some ladybugs have as many as 24 spots, while others have none at all. Some are red, some orange, others are pink, yellow, black...even white.
Even in the insect world, youth fades. As a ladybug ages, its spots begin to fade. (but sad as that may seem, we can all take heart in the fact that their eyebrows don't become wiry, nor do their pubes turn grey)
Birds do it, bees do it...even ladybugs do it. And they do it doggy style:
So...as the above picture proves, there are male ladybugs and there are female ladybugs. But you'd have to be an entomologist to tell them apart. Or another ladybug.
"They all look alike to me...do they interbreed?" No, Virginia, they do not. The male ladybug's...um..."unit", is much like a key. It only fits one "keyhole." Having said that, I wonder how many women are now saying to themselves: "Why couldn't God have used such forethought when he created Man?"
First, some Esoterica...
At one point or another, I have surveyed the roses, or the lupines or particular irises in my garden...covered with aphids, yet speckled with ladybugs diligently eating them...and said to myself "Thank God something eats them!" I formed that thought in my mind even as an avowed agnostic. As it turns out, however, much of the Western World has thought the same thing over the years. Most of the names for the common ladybug throughout Europe come from a similar sense of gratitude towards Heaven. We all came from farmers, after all, and farmers are always grateful for a helping hand. They often attribute that help to...who else? God. (which raises the question...to whom do they attribute the weeds and pests?)
In Germany they call them Marienkaefers (Mary's beetles). Yes...THAT Mary. They also refer to them as Himmelskindchen, or Heavens little child...even Herrgottspferdchen, Our Lord's horse. In Many parts of Russia they are called "God's Cow." In Hebrew, where neither Mary nor God is taken lightly, they are called "Moses' Cow"...In Spanish, it's Mariquita (Little Mary). The Danes call them Mariehone (Mary's hen). The Dutch? Lieveheerbeestje, Our Dear Lord's little beast. Compared to those names, the English "Ladybird" seems peculiarly secular...except for the fact that the "Lady" referred to is none other that the Virgin Mary, referred to by many Catholics as "Our Lady". Even in English, the name has been shortened from "Our Lady's Bird" to Ladybird...but the derivation is still the same. Oddly, the Portuguese call them Joaninhas...little Janes or Joannas. I'm not sure of the derivation there.
In Iran, the colloquial term for ladybug translates as "good news". In Turkey, it is the "Lucky Beetle." And on and on. Nobody, it seems, has a name for these small, cheerful, but rather clumsy insects that is in any sense dismissive or insulting. The French refer to them officially by their scientific name, Coccinelle (from the Latin Coccinellidae, for beetles). But they also have more coloquial terms that share the aforementioned references to cows, horses, hens and the Virgin Mary. Interestingly, one of the first widely known and most famous transsexuals in France was a man by the name of Jacques Dufresnoy, born in 1931, who became an actress and acclaimed cabaret singer, performing under the name of...Coccinelle. He toured Israel, and his stage name became a widely used slang in that country for a transsexual or, more broadly, a homosexual. In Israel, the term was pretty clearly used as a pejorative. But In parts of Latin America, oddly enough, the local word used for ladybug is somewhat similar. Maricona is used among some in Mexico, for example, to refer to a ladybug. It is derived from Maricon, or homosexual, and from those I know it refers to the difficulty in telling the male from the females in the species. Mariquita, the more common term, is most often attributed to Mary, but it is also a term commonly used in parts of Latin America to refer to either lesbians, gays or effeminate men. Who knew?
When I was about 10, it was common to catch a ladybug let it crawl over your hand until it climbed to the tip of one of your fingers and took flight. As it did, the custom was to make a wish. Don't ask me where that bit of lore came from...I couldn't tell you. Yet it seemed to be fairly common amongst the other kids I ran around with. As I began researching this little ladybug diary, I discovered that that lore wasn't only common in Hayward, California...There are variants on it the world over. I don't remember anyone specifically ever telling me it was good luck to catch a ladybug...I just absorbed that bit of folklore from my surroundings...and it would appear that it has been handed down over many generations from immigrants throughout most of Europe.
In France, lore has it that if a ladybug lands upon you, whatever ailment you might have will leave you as the ladybug flies away.
In Belgium, lore has it that if a ladybug lands upon a young girl's hand, she will marry within the year.
The Swiss have a tradition of telling their young kids that babies are brought to their homes by ladybugs.
Some countries believe that if you catch a ladybug, you can count the number of spots on it to determine how many children you will have, or how many dollars (or gilder, or marks) you are destined to come into possession of shortly. Other lore says that the number of spots on the first ladybug you see in the Spring forecasts either a good or poor harvest for the season to come.
You get the idea... Now, how about some actual science?
The scientific name for ladybugs is Coccinella septempunctata. Literally, it translates as 7 spotted beetle. Yet, as I mentioned above, ladybugs come in several models...just like the VW. Some have no spots, some have as many as 24. Its range is quite wide, covering most latitudes that are neither arctic nor antarctic.
Like a butterfly, the ladybug undergoes 4 distinct stages over the course of its lifespan. The adult beetle lays eggs, as many as 1000 before it dies. Those eggs (which are a bright yellow,and easily recognized) Not all ladybugs eat aphidshatch into larvae, which live for anywhere from 3 to 6 weeks in that stage before forming pupae. From those pupae emerge a new generation of adults. I've seen the adults, the eggs and the larvae, but I don't believe I've ever seen, or at least noticed, the pupae. I thought to myself that I had never seen a ladybug pupa before, though I'm quite familiar with their larvae and even their eggs...but upon googling an image I see that I have seen them many times, but just didn't recognize them for what they were:
The preferred diet of ladybugs is aphids. And lots of them. But they will also eat scale insects and some other soft bodied insects. As for what eats ladybugs?...
They have some predators, but surprisingly few. Their coloring has a lot to do with that. As National Geographic puts it
Their distinctive spots and attractive colors are meant to make them unappealing to predators. Ladybugs can secrete a fluid from joints in their legs which gives them a foul taste. Their coloring is likely a reminder to any animals that have tried to eat their kind before: "I taste awful." A threatened ladybug may both play dead and secrete the unappetizing substance to protect itself.
The yellow liquid that ladybugs secrete when disturbed is actually the equivalent of ladybug blood. There are, however, some natural predators. Certain dragonflies, wasps, the Assassin Bug, and, among birds, Swifts, Swallows and Martins.
Unlike many, if not most, insects that have a short life cycle, ladybugs live from one year to the next. In winter they hibernate, clustering together in masses in a sheltered location until the next Spring. Sometime in the Sixties, American Ag Scientists thought it would be a good idea to import Asian ladybugs and release them here. I'll speak more to this a bit later, but mention it here because they are especially prone to seeking shelter inside of homes, or on the outside of homes and later finding a way inside in search of warmth. They can mass in numbers that can make you feel like you are in an out-take from the movie "Amityville Horror."
Even the non-asian ladybugs can form hibernating colonies that are quite impressive in their sheer number. One of the largest ever recorded was in a barn in rural England, where a colony was found that numbered in the neighborhood of a half million ladybugs. Think about that for a moment. Scientists believe, though they are unsure, that this clustering habit has something to do with the communal warmth that such a mass may generate... I'm no entomologist, but insects aren't mammals...how much warmth can they generate?
Not all ladybugs, after all of the feel good stories above, are beneficial, I'm sad to say. Yes...it's true. Some actually feed upon, gasp, crop plants. Thankfully, they are the minority, but still they should be mentioned. The Mexican Bean Beetle and the Squash Beetle are two ladybugs that are actually agricultural pests. These are not, however, the insect culprits responsible for the famous Mexican Jumping Beans...that is the larvae of a moth. But they do eat the foliage, instead of the pests, of certain bean and squash crops.
Those Asian Ladybugs
Chalk it up to "It seemed like a good idea at the time." Sometime in the 1960's, at the encouragement of farming lobbyists mostly in Southern States, USDA scientists decided to import and release vast numbers of Asian Ladybugs. It wasn't the first time. Back in the 1880's, Southern California's citrus growers were facing a seige by an Australian scale insect that had made its way to our shores, and had no natural predators. Australian ladybugs were brought in and released en masse, and the scale problem was alleviated. And Australian ladybugs became just another of the 300 to 400 ladybug species found here.
Likewise, Southern farmers must have been facing some insect scourge that was Asian in origin, so it was deemed efficacious to import the Asian ladybug. It's not that they don't do what they were brought here to do...it's what else they do that makes most people consider them to be pests. They love to swarm inside the warmth of poorly sealed homes. In Spring, I have friends in Ohio who have to use shop vacs to suck them up off of the walls and along windows. They are truly plague-like in their numbers.
You have to use a vac, because if you use a more low tech approach like a broom, they will emit that yellow fluid in self defense, which not only stinks but also stains painted or wallpapered surfaces. Those of you who know what I'm talking about need hear no more. You are already shaking your heads in recognition and disgust. For those who have never seen this phenomena before, here is a pic of what one's wall can look like in a bad year:
Not pretty, isn't it? And that many ladybugs congregating in a solarium have a certain...funk, shall we say.
So...ladybugs are mostly good, cheerful, friendly critters, and I'm glad I have a robust population of them in my garden. But I wouldn't want to contend with that.
For those of you who are at the other end of the spectrum...who have NO ladybugs, and dearly wish you did...there are some things you can do. I'm not sure I would put going down to the nursery and buying a bag of ladybugs and setting them free in your yard at the top of that list, however.
Ladybugs, like most wildlife, thrive in a diverse environment. Take a look at your yard/garden/outside space. If you have plants that are being attacked by aphids, you at least know that you have a food source for ladybugs. But there are also some plants that are known to be host plants for ladybugs in the off season, and that will attract and keep a natural population of ladybugs in or near to your garden.
Those include the following:
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Basket of Gold (alyssum saxatilis)
Fennel (and the birds love the seed heads!)
So...that may not be everything you always wanted to know about ladybugs, but I hope you leave here knowing more than you did...and if you have a question, ask me. If I don't know, I'll look it up and respond in the comments. And if you come from some place I didn't mention above, I'd love to hear some more names for ladybugs from around the world, and how they translate.
Thanks for reading, and here's a video that shows the ladybug's lifecycle: