Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the July 21, 2008 Newsletter, after a visit to Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in western Kentucky:

"Over the past twenty years several native ladybug species that were once very common have become extremely rare," begins the page at http://instruct1.cit.cornell.edu/courses/icb344/Lost_Ladybugs.htm.

That page, produced by the Dept. of Entomology at Cornell University, describes a ladybug-monitoring project you might find interesting. The idea is to locate rare ladybug species, identify them, and send digital pictures of them to Cornell.

I was thinking about that project at our Kentucky camp when I noticed two ladybug species on a Buttonbush at the water's edge, and wondered whether either might be rare. One of them was the ladybug I grew up with in Kentucky but have seen little of in recent years, so I was particularly interested in its status. A picture showing the two Buttonbush species is below.

Spotted Ladybug, COLEOMEGILLA MACULATA on left,  Seven-spotted Ladybug, COCCINELLA SEPTEMPUNCTATA on right

It turns out that the ladybug from my childhood, the smaller one on the left, is the Spotted Ladybug, COLEOMEGILLA MACULATA, a native to North America. She eats aphids, insect eggs, small larvae and lots of pollen, but she's not really rare.

The species on the right is the Seven-spotted Ladybug, COCCINELLA SEPTEMPUNCTATA, an alien introduced from Europe in 1956, therefore nothing to get excited about.

These identifications were made possible by a nicely illustrated, easy-to-use field guide, which you can download for free, in PDF format, by clicking here.

from the May 18, 2014 Newsletter issued from the Frio Canyon Nature Education Center in the valley of the Dry Frio River in northern Uvalde County, southwestern Texas, on the southern border of the Edwards Plateau, USA

While photographing ants collecting honeydew from aphids on the freshly sprouted stem of a shrubby Baccharis neglecta, something white was present among the aphids, but I couldn't imagine what it was. The aphids themselves were smaller than those who infested my mustard greens last winter, so the white things were tiny. You can see two of them below:

Ladybug larvae the tribe Scymnini

Only when I got that picture on the laptop screen could I see what an extraordinary find we'd made. Was it an aphid or a miniscule caterpillar infested with cocoons of parasitic wasp pupae, such as the braconid wasp cocoons shown on our Braconid Wasp Page.

Or was it an aphid-size caterpillar or some other kind of incredibly small insect adorned with blunt, white spines?

Sending the picture to volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario, it wasn't long before an email shot back saying that largely by chance she'd stumbled upon pictures matching our mystery entity, and that what we have is the larva of a ladybird beetle of the subfamily Scymninae.

Both adult and larval ladybird Scymninae are known to feed mostly on scale insects but also eat aphids and mealybugs. Scymninae larvae, as we see, are covered with waxy white tufts, causing them to resemble certain caterpillars or mealybugs themselves, evoking the expression, "wolf in sheep's clothing."

Numerous Scymninae larvae are similar to ours and we couldn't more precisely pin down our lavae's identity, so Bea submitted the picture to BugGuide.Com to see if someone more expert could carry it further. Abigail Parker in Philadelphia, describing herself as a passionate entomologist focusing especially on ladybird beetle larvae, soon remarked that with just a picture she couldn't be more precise than to say it's probably in the tribe Scymnini -- a subdivision of the subfamily Scymninae. Beetles in that tribe are known as Dusky Lady Beetles, and six genera of the tribe are known to occur in North America north of Mexico. They're small, dark beetles, less than 3mm long.

Abigail also pointed out that our larvae's body color showing beneath the white cocoons is yellowish, which would further help us narrow down the possibilities, if only anyone knew which genera or species the yellow-bodied ones metamorphose into. She's also seen gray- and pink-bodied ones.

from the November 25, 2001, Newsletter, issued from near Natchez, Mississippi:

Early in the week I didn't need to check an Internet weather site to know that a coldfront was approaching, for each crack in my little trailer became an entry point for ladybugs. Somehow these little red beetles know when cold weather.

It's best to keep them out of the trailer because a ladybug leg in the wrong place on a computer circuitboard can cause all kinds of grief. They get in, anyway. During ladybug-entering times the bugs home in on cracks and holes like smart-bombs, and my trailer's door and windows in general do not fit together that well. Also these bugs clearly regard my ear-holes as potential overwintering grounds.

I grew up calling these insects "ladybugs" but most books refer to them as "ladybirds." The dictionary says that the latter word is derived from "bird of Our Lady," so perhaps in the old days people thought that these insects were so pretty that they deserved to be associated with the Virgin Mary.

I think that our Kentucky ladybugs were the several-spotted COLEOMEGILLA MACULATA. Two species have been entering my trailer. One seems to be the no-spotted CYCLONEDA MUNDA, sometimes called the Red Lady Beetle, and the other is surely a species of the genus HIPPODAMIA very close to the H. CONVERGENS. We have other species as well, but I can't identify it. It appears that just the subject of "ladybugs" is a monumental one.

from the December 28, 2003, Newsletter, issued from near Natchez, Mississippi:

Just last month in the November 16th Newsletter I mentioned the amazing numbers of ladybugs that gathered on the barn's sunny west side on warm afternoons. I figured that as soon as it got a little colder the whole ladybug scene would quite down. Let it be known that one particular species of ladybug, the non-native, introduced beetles now found coast-to-coast in the US and formally known as Multicolor Asian Ladybeetles, HARMONIA AXYRIDIS, are still with me, in plaguy abundance.

During the coldest times they're quiet, but as soon as the temperature rises over about 50° (10°C), they come out crawling and buzzing about, and when it gets into the 70s, as it was Monday, they are distracting, at least. They must be attracted to the relative paleness of my skin, for when I remove my shirt to work in the garden they land all over me. They get into my beard and stick to my sweaty skin. When I put the shirt back on, they're inside the shirt and they tickle me until they tumble from the sleeves. When I'm cooking and pour oil into my skillet they fly into the hot oil, and when I put down a pan, unless I remember to brush off the pan's bottom, I squash ladybugs. My habitual paths on the barn's concrete floor are orange-speckled with ladybug smushings.

I don't remember the native ladybugs I knew as a child in Kentucky emitting an odor. These Asian ones stink. When I brush one from my beard, my fingers then have that odor. It's not a terrible odor, just a weak, bitter one, but it's one of those scents that, if you smell it all the time, finally it just gets you. This odor arises from an orange-colored fluid the beetle issues when upset. In fancier lodging than my own, that fluid can spot and stain walls, curtains, carpeting, and other surfaces. I read that if you try to sweep them out, they'll stain your floor. The most effective removal is accomplished by vacuuming, they say. My approach is to leave them alone and hope they stay out of my computer.

These critters were intentionally introduced several times into the US, including here in Mississippi. The idea was to have them eat agricultural pests, because in their natural homeland in eastern Asia they prey on scale and aphid pests on trees. The first collections of them in natural areas in the US were made in Louisiana in 1988, but already by 1992 they were being found in Kentucky. Now they're in all states.

Now about the words "ladybug" and "ladybird." Our "ladybug" is the supposedly inelegant corruption of "ladybird," so the main question deals with the etymology of "ladybird." "Ladybird" is itself a sort of corruption of the term "Our Lady's Bird," with "Our Lady" being understood to be the Virgin Mary. The idea apparently is that ladybugs are so pretty that they're worthy of being associated with The Virgin. This notion flows through other cultures as well. The French call ladybugs "les betes du bon Dieu," or "creatures of the good God," and "les vaches de la Vierge," or "cows of the Virgin." The Germans call them "Marienkäfer," or "Mary's beetles."

Whatever they're called, I wish they didn't tickle so much, didn't stink so much, and I wish they would eat some of the aphids currently infesting my cabbages.

from the November 16, 2003, Newsletter, issued from near Natchez, Mississippi:

At this time of year unseasonably warm weather usually precedes a cold wave. That was the case this week: Wednesday afternoon it was 80° (27°C), but Friday morning at dawn my thermometer read 37° (3°C). I doubt that I'm the only one around here who on those warm afternoons earlier this week saw a lot of ladybugs.

On those warm afternoons the west side of our barn was a gathering place for ladybugs looking for places in which to overwinter. The cinderblock walls there in some places are overlapped by wooden siding, and the narrow spaces between the blocks and the wood must be heaven to hibernating ladybugs. I have heard of inch-deep masses of ladybugs gathered in attics and inside walls. We had nothing like that, but there were thousands nonetheless.

Fence Lizards and Green Anoles also like our western wall on sunny, warm afternoons and when the ladybugs are swarming the reptiles look disoriented, as if they want to eat ladybugs, but don't dare to. I've seen anoles and lizards gorge themselves when they came upon swarming winged ants and termites so I wondered why they weren't eating the ladybugs. Then one afternoon I breathed in a ladybug. It stuck for a while in my throat as I hacked and coughed, and by the time I got it spit out, I knew why they weren't being eaten. Though I hadn't crunched the ladybug, my mouth was filled with an oily bitterness that almost made me sick and kept me coughing a long time. Ladybugs seem to have a chemical weapon in their defensive arsenal.

The best I can tell, most of our ladybugs are "Asian Lady Beetles," HARMONIA AXYRIDIS. This is not the same species I knew so well on the farm in Kentucky. This one is lighter in color, usually yellowish or orange, and has more spots, sometimes as many as 19. One explanation of why I didn't see this species as a child is that they were introduced, both intentionally and unintentionally, during the 1980s. Now they are established in every state east of the Mississippi, and in a good bit of land west of the river.

At first glance, the arrival of this ladybug on our shores might not seem to constitute the kind of environmental disaster that typically accompanies most introductions of alien species. These ladybugs feed on aphids, whiteflies and thrips, so they help protect our gardens and trees. However, there's growing evidence that, crabgrass-like, they're displacing our 450 species of native ladybugs.

I think that on any given warm day, two or three ladybug species can be seen on our barn's west side, with the Asian species contributing about 95% of the bodies. "Asian Lady Beetles" are so variable not only in coloration and spotting, but also in size, that it takes a while to realize that you don't have a lot of species.

I read that it's believed someplace in Europe that the number of spots on certain lady beetle species can predict the coming harvest: fewer spots are good, too many spots are bad. Since "Asian Lady Beetles" have more spots than any species I know, so I hope the spots aren't auguring ill for the ecosystem they are now flooding into.

from the October 2, 2005 Newsletter, issued from the Sierra Nevada Foothills east of Sacramento, California:

ladybug clusters on horsetailsArriving at Slate Mountain I passed by the peak and continued on to Deer View, the old hotel ruin I wrote about a few Newsletters ago. Part of the ruin complex consists of an abandoned pear orchard partly overgrown with blackberry brambles. In late afternoon as I walked into the semi-open orchard area so many ladybugs were flying through the warm sunlight that they constantly got into my beard and between by eyes and my glasses. The open area was surrounded by dark forest so the sun exploding in so many fast-streaking ladybug wings was a thing to see.

As the sun sank below the next ridge, the air cooled quickly and the ladybugs vanished.

Next morning in air so chilly that steam formed as I breathed I wandered along the little stream next to the ruins. In a certain marshy area primitive, spore- producing horsetails (genus EQUISETUM) thickly rose like slender, knee-high pagodas, and over a kitchen- size area at every node on every horsetail 20 to 50 ladybugs were clustered. Later Fred and Diana came up on their yearly blackberry-picking expedition and they brought the camera, so you can see this strange thing at the right.