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

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