Thursday, May 20, 2021

What’s the Deal with Ladybugs?

A red and black ladybug on a white leaf. Photo by Filip Kruchlik on Pixabay.
If you’ve been purchasing ladybugs from us over the years, or if you are considering a purchase, you may have wondered why their availability has been so erratic. The reasons for this are very simple, and yet complex at the same time. But what it boils down to is that ladybugs, like many other things that people “love”, are the victims of their own popularity.

Bucky Bug - a cartoon ladybug drawn by Eric Duvall in 1932.
Bucky Bug
Ladybugs have appeared in folklore for who-knows-how-long, but it was the comic-crazed times of the early 1930s that introduced this little beetle to the world at large. During the doom-filled days of the Great Depression, people all over would find solace in the simple chuckles they’d get from the Sunday comics and the short cartoons played before movies. In 1932, Eric Duvall drew some characters based on ladybugs for a popular Disney movie cartoon series known as Silly Symphonies. These boy and girl ladybugs (Bucky Bug and June Bug) were immensely popular and became the first Disney character to appear in Sunday papers. This was arguably the beginning of the popularization and commercialization of ladybugs (To get an idea of just how astonishingly big and wide this commercialization has grown, Google or go to Amazon and put in “ladybugs”).

A ladybug eating a pink bug with long legs and long antenna.
The truth of the matter is that ladybugs are far from the endearing little insects we’ve all been
conditioned to see. They’re much more Terminator than friend-of-the garden and have some nasty behaviors that should dispel the cute myth entirely. Firstly, they will devour any insects that they can get their hands on. It is a common misconception that ladybugs only go after aphids; they like aphids a lot, but they will take a meal where they can get one. This predatory behavior extends to beneficial insects that truly are friends-to-the-garden. If you are using beneficial insects, you should carefully consider the consequences before introducing lady bugs. Secondly, ladybugs have toxic tendencies. When threatened, they will excrete or spray an alkaline toxin as a defense mechanism. Many predators will spit them out at this point, but the nasty fluid is still in the garden environment. It stinks and can cause allergic reactions and asthma-related problems with humans. The author of this article eloquently says, “Ladybugs are not only homicidal maniacs, they’re walking dirty bombs”.

A ladybug larva on a green leaf
Another aspect of the ladybug that does not fit the popular cutesy image is their own larvae. Ladybug larvae are way more sinister-looking than their adult versions (they kind of look like mini prehistoric alligators) and their appetites are as voracious as any adult. According to this article, each one can eat up to 400 aphids in their 3-week life span. Here’s a video of a larva chowing down on an aphid.

The seemingly endless popularity of ladybugs has meant that certain species are becoming dominant, and the numbers of native species are dropping. The Hippodamia convergens species that we sell is native to North America, but it has become endemic in areas that it never was before. The reason for this is simple – Hippodamia convergens look like the ladybug people want to see. Much like the consumer preferences that have led to us having grocery stores full of perfect-looking (yet flavorless) produce, our gardens are filling up with a single species of ladybugs. Hippodamia convergens have no deference to native species of ladybugs; they will gobble them up as quickly as any other insect and then enthusiastically take over their established territories. In order to maintain a healthy environment, native species should be recognized and encouraged in our green spaces.
15 different types of ladybugs, showing the variety of colors and markings across species.
All These Are Ladybugs

So, what does this all have to do with the commercial availability of ladybugs? Several things – and all are related to demand that’s beyond the capacity of nature to provide. It may come as a surprise to many people, but the overwhelming majority of ladybugs that are sold commercially are gathered in the wild. This includes the Hippodamia convergens that we sell. So, no, there are not carefully monitored, sustainably conscious labs putting out the little beetles you buy for your ladybug release party. The fact that these in-demand insects are taken from the wild leads to several complications:

A closeup of a ladybug in flight.
There are no regulations, or oversight of any kind, on how ladybugs are collected. This has led to some egregious and over-the-top efforts to find them, including some people who simply dig up all the dirt and vegetation around where they think they’ll find beetles hibernating. This leads to habitat destruction and eliminates any possible shelter for future generations.

Parasites and diseases that are present in the wild-caught population can be introduced to the micro-world of your garden and the macro-world of your geographical area. Although there is not enough evidence to know just how much a threat this is to the exposed ladybug populations, there is definitely the potential for serious problems.

Green, grassy stalks with tons of ladybugs all over them. Photo by Austin Ban on Unsplash.
Weather-induced events and climate change directly affect the numbers of ladybugs that are
available. We have seen this most dramatically with the devastating forest fires on the West Coast. The beautiful and lush forests of the West have been the main source for our ladybugs, but many of those same breeding grounds have been lost to fires.  Most people are saddened by the mammals and birds that fall victim to fire, but few realize that there have been billions of insect lives taken as well. And when their sanctuary is gone, they cannot easily bounce back.

All in all, there are simply fewer ladybugs out there than there used to be.

A closeup of a Green Lacewing with a black aphid in its mouth. Photo by Paul Bertner.
You may be wondering why I am downplaying the benefits of ladybugs when we sell them, and that’s fair. The truth is, for all of the above reasons, we have been struggling with maintaining a steady supply from collectors that we are confident are harvesting ethically. We have made an internal commitment to this stand and will not have ladybugs available unless we are comfortable with their provenance and the sustainability of the collection sites. Instead, we would like to encourage our customers to consider using other beneficials for their pest control. Green Lacewings, for instance, prey on the same pest insects as ladybugs but they will stick around as long as there is food for them (unlike ladybugs who are notoriously flighty). Additionally, if our customers decide that they are committed to ladybugs, we want them to have the full picture of what these beetles bring to the table – responsible bug-parenting, if you will.

A cartoon of a ladybug landing on a leaf full of yellow, scurrying insects.

Take Care 

Submitted by Pam

Monday, May 10, 2021

What’s This Bug? The Golden Tortoise Beetle.

A close-up of an adult Golden Tortoise Beetles sitting on green leaf
This little bug could easily be mistaken for a sequin that had fallen off some snazzy dress. It has the size, shape, and shininess of a gold sequin, but it’s a Golden Tortoise Beetle (Charidotella sexpunctata). This particular species of beetle is native to the Americas and is most common in states on the East Coast. Lately, however, it has been making headway in the Midwest and down into Texas. Golden Tortoise Beetles are still not super-common and do not congregate in large numbers like many similar beetles, so finding one still has the surprise element for most people.

Two Golden Tortoise Beetle, in metallic and red shades, mating on a white leaf with green veins.
Golden Tortoise Beetles (aka Goldbugs) are not always bright metallic gold in color. They can also be a reddish-brown or a mottled mix of red and gold. Goldbugs have a special ability to change their colors and these color changes are directly related to the mood of the insect. While the metallic color indicates an at-peace bug, when they feel threatened or annoyed their color becomes red. They manage this change by drying up the fluid in their clear exoskeleton (here is an article that explains this with a Panamanian version of the Goldbug). Scientists believe the color change may make the insect appear poisonous to predators, but that reasoning does not explain another situation where they change colors – during mating. When mating, both parties will go from gold to red. Mating appears to be an intense event for Goldbugs; according to this article there have been studies that show that copulation can last nearly ten hours! Apart from some Australian crab spiders that change colors when hunting, Goldbugs seem to be unique in the insect world with this ability to change color at will. 
Golden Tortoise larva on a green stem holding its anal shield high.

The larvae of the Golden Tortoise Beetle have some interesting characteristics of their own. For starters, they look like little dinosaurs; they are flat and reddish or brownish in color with spiky protuberances all over them. Because they are slow and cannot fly, they have developed an effective (and disgusting by human standards) defense mechanism. They make what is called an anal shield by melding together old skin and fecal matter and attaching it to their anal fork (they have an extra-long anal tube for this). They then keep this shield on top of their bodies to protect themselves and every now and then they wave it around. Apparently, predators find this all this as gross as we do and stay away. Watch a larva make and flip its anal shield here.

A Golden Tortoise Beetle sitting on a man's fingertip.There have been limited biological studies done on the Goldbug and the consensus seems to be that this is because they are not a threat to agriculture. Their relativity low numbers and preference for specific plants are the reasons for this. Goldbugs feed primarily on the leaves and flowers of morning glories and sweet potatoes. If they run out of their preferred foods, they may move on to other members of the Convulvulaceae family, but they don’t stray far from that. The damage caused by these beetles is mostly cosmetic and will not lead to long-term problems or crop loss. That being said, you may still want them out of your area. If that’s the case, it is best to remove them manually when they appear. Insecticides are not recommended as the potential for harm to the garden far outweighs the damage Goldbugs can do. If you are maintaining a garden that is well-fed and well-watered, with minimal weeds, you will probably never even see these bugs.

A mean of a man saying, "I love gold".

Adult Golden Tortoise Beetles start appearing in May or June. If you are out there in your garden, keep an eye out for something shiny and take a moment to appreciate this exceptional creature. 

Take care.

Submitted by Pam

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Flowers In May And Beyond

Multi-colored poppies on long stalks with a cloudy sky in the background. Photo by Schwoaze on Pixabay.
It’s May – and that means it’s the time of year when gardeners will delight as their long-planted bulbs bloom, and everyone is awed by nature’s spectacular wildflower displays. May flowers are truly a joy when they appear, but there are ways you can stretch the abundance of blooms through the summer months.

If you are seeing your bulbs bloom now, then you have spring (or hardy) bulbs. Tulips, hyacinth, and daffodils are all spring bulbs. These bulbs are planted in the fall, overwinter in your garden, and need that cold period to complete their growth cycle. But there’s another type of bulb – the summer (or tender) bulb. These bulbs don’t like cold temperatures at all and need to be planted well after a last frost date. Summer bulbs include gladioli, dahlias, and lilies. It is an easy transition from one type of bloom to the other, if you follow these few basic steps at this time of year:

A close-up of a purple dahlia. Photo by Couleur on Pixabay.

Deadhead your spring-blooming bulbs but leave the foliage intact.

While deadheading, examine your plants carefully for insect activity. Pest insects enjoy May flowers as much as we do, and you don’t want to introduce them to your next batch of flowers.

Separate and remove any bulbs that did not thrive.

Dig up and store any bulbs that need to be kept cool through the summer.

A blond girl holding a lily bulb up close to the camera.
Keep an eye out for any soil-dwelling pests as you dig into the dirt.

Plant your summer bulbs amongst your spring ones.

Summer bulbs do well in containers and look lovely on a front step or porch when in bloom.

This article is a wealth of information on bulbs and is laid out in a very easy-to-read format.

Close-up of white and yellow saguaro flowers, with green buds behind them.
Nature rewards us in spring with wildflowers. Almost anywhere you go at this time of year, you’ll find some. Here in southern Arizona, we have been tickling summer temperatures for a while now, so our wildflower season is well behind us. But we do have reliable May blooms in the form of saguaro flowers (which is also our state flower). These gorgeous white blooms appear in jaunty clusters on the tops of the saguaros and/or the ends of their arms. Along with the flowery show comes the companion animal of the saguaro, the White-Winged Dove. This pretty little bird migrates to Mexico through the winter and early spring months and then returns to the Sonoran Desert just in time to enjoy the saguaro flowers (and subsequent fruit). This cactus and bird are a perfect example of mutualism in nature, where on species depends on another. I wrote a blog on the dove-saguaro relationship, if you want to know a little more.

A field of Trillium grandiflorum (a spring ephemeral)  in a forest
Desert ecosystems notwithstanding, some of nature’s greatest flower shows are found deep in the forest. It is there, thriving in undisturbed organic material and undiluted by mankind, that you can find truly authentic wildflowers. Some of these beauties only appear for a short time and are known as “spring ephemerals”. If you are lucky enough to have a forest that you can get to in May, I recommend you do so this month. You won’t be disappointed. Here is more on spring ephemerals and forest wildflowers in the Saranac Lake region of New York, but these types of flowers can be found many other places as well.

Wildflowers sprouting from the rocky shore on Gannon Beach, Oregon. There is a boulder-island in the background.
Whether you live in the woods, at the beach, or on the prairie, you can find flowers growing around you in May. Even in the biggest of cities, keep an eye out and you’ll see them alongside raucous highways or along a neighbor’s fence line. Granted, some people may call these weeds, but they are also wildflowers. If you don’t want to go looking for wildflowers, or you want specific varieties, you can easily plant your own. There are a great many seeds available commercially that will sprout and bloom quickly so that you can enjoy wildflowers all summer long. According to this article, when planting wildflowers the most important thing is to plant them on prepared, bare ground. If you are unsure as to what will work best for you, here are some glorious suggestions. Of course, it goes without saying that the best choice would be whichever wildflowers are native to your area. 

A partial view of a woman's face as she is looking down and smiling at a bunch of tulips wrapped in brown paper. Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash.
There is one more flower that comes in May that I’d like to address: Mother’s Day flowers. Millions of women across America will be receiving some form of flower gift this coming weekend. Unfortunately, most will be dead by the next week. This article has some thorough guidelines, including type-specific care, while this floral company gives four simple steps.

Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night – 
Rainier Maria Rilke

Happy May!

Submitted by Pam             

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