Ah, ladybugs – another popular arthropod redolent with childhood memories. I don’t think I know anyone who’s had a bad experience with lady bugs, and that’s saying something, because I know someone who’s had bad experiences with butterflies.
Ladybugs are not only cute little beetles that come in a variety of colors, but they’re also incredibly useful to farmers and recreational gardeners alike. Also referred to as lady beetles or ladybird beetles, these frequently polka-dotted bugs love to snack on pesky insects like aphids, so some species are purchased seasonally for crop protection. Only two species of ladybug (the Mexican bean beetle and the squash beetle) feed on plants rather than insects, so on the whole ladybugs are quite useful to have around… although some species may actually mess up your fabrics if they get in your house. Still, ladybugs are almost always a welcome sight outdoors.
Ladybug larvae look drastically different from their adult counterparts, resembling tiny, bumpy, wingless cicadas decked out in Halloween colors (according to my highly scientific observations). The larvae help cut down on pests too, though, so just because they look a little funny doesn’t mean they’re up to no good.
After four instars, or molts, the ladybug larva attaches itself to a leaf and pupates. As a pupa, which is basically the ladybug version of a cocoon, the beetle looks somewhat like a grilled popcorn kernel (yet another incredibly scientific analysis). It metamorphoses into an adult ladybug within a week or two.
Not all ladybug species look alike – some may be yellow, orange, pink, and of course, red. But, they are all brightly colored to warn predators of their toxicity. That’s right, sweet little ladybugs are actually toxic and ooze smelly fluid from their legs to poison their foes. Fortunately, they aren’t toxic enough to harm humans. If their coloring and dangerous leg juices don’t ward off predators, ladybugs might also play dead. I’m not sure why that works against animals that intended to kill it anyway, but apparently it does.
My favorite ladybug defense strategy has got to be the way Allenius iviei ladybugs tuck their heads into their shells like turtles. Aside from protecting this specific species from decapitation, this colorful, often spotted shell (or elytra) protects the wings of all ladybugs. When the elytra opens up and the ladybug takes flight, its large, translucent wings flap at a rapid 85 beats per second! They may not be the fastest flying insects of all (cough, cough, dragonflies), but they certainly aren’t slow.
Fast-flying, candy-colored, polka-dotted circle beetles – God must have been smiling when He made these little guys.
Have you ever wondered how ladybugs got their name? Apparently the full name was once “Our Lady’s beetle” in reference to the Virgin Mary, whom farmers in the Middle Ages thought sent the beetles to eradicate the aphids eating their crops. How “ladybird” beetles became a thing, however, I still don’t know. If you do, please let me know in the comments, I’m curious.
In recent years, invasive ladybugs have begun to outcompete native species for food sources, leading to the decline of native ladybugs in their original habitats throughout the United States. To further understand these changing populations, Cornell University started the Lost Ladybug Project, which asks citizens to send in pictures of any ladybugs they find so the Project can figure out where native ladybugs are still living. I’ve included the link here if you want to check it out!
Unlike most arthropods, ladybugs are one of the few insects that don’t immediately horrify people when they touch them. In fact, a lot of people consider it good luck to be landed on by one of these little beetles; I know several folks who blow ladybugs off their fingers and make wishes on them like birthday candles. According to the South Carolina Aquarium, ladybugs were originally deemed lucky by farmers (makes sense), and the superstition stuck. Take notes, arthropods – if you want people to like you, don’t eat their vegetables. Even better, eat the other arthropods that are eating their vegetables. It’s fool-proof!
…Well, except in the case of spiders. Poor spiders: they did everything right and they still don’t get the appreciation they deserve. Spiders eat pests too, you know – just because they bite doesn’t mean they’re not helpful, they just like their personal space!
What if we started calling spiders lucky? What if every time we saw a spider, we were like “sweet, a spider! Today’s going to be a good day”? Ladybugs are awesome, but spiders deserve some credit, too.
Let’s do it. Let’s make this a thing. Spiders are lucky now, spread the word.