Friday, October 14, 2011

Insect of the Week - The Ladybug

Adult ladybird beetle
(Photo: Scott Bauer, USDA)
Since we've all heard the life cycle, habits, and problems with ladybugs ad nauseam, I thought it might be fun to write about fun facts about the beetles instead. For those of you that would like more information on the above aspects of these beetles, please see our fact sheet:

Ladybugs aren't really bugs. 
In the entomology world, the term bug refers to insects in the Order Hemiptera. Ladybugs are beetles and belong to the Order Coleoptera. Us entomologists refer to ladybugs as ladybird beetles or lady beetles since they are not really bugs. But I won't mind if you still call them ladybugs. If you want to know what makes an insect a true bug, you can read more here:

Where did the name "ladybird" come from?
The most common species of lady beetle in Britain is the seven-spot ladybird beetle. This bright red ladybird has seven spots and is thought to have inspired the name ladybird. Lady, referring to the Virgin Mary (Our Lady), is seen wearing a red cloak in early paintings; the seven spots are symbolic of the seven joys and seven sorrows of Mary.

Lady beetle larva attacking aphids
(Photo: David Cappaert, Mich. State Univ.)
Immature lady beetles look like monsters and are voracious predators.Both the larval and adult forms of predatory ladybird beetle species feed on a wide variety of insects, including aphids, scale insects, and other insect larvae (including other lady beetle larvae). Both the adults and larvae actively hunt for prey in field crops, gardens, and ornamental trees and shrubs.

Do lady beetles get bigger as they get older?
No. Once an adult, it stays the same size for the rest of its life. Insects wear their skeleton on the outside; therefore, they must molt in order to grow. Insects with complete metamorphosis, including the lady beetle, do not molt as adults.

Ladybird beetles ooze blood from their leg joints when alarmed.A lady beetle's blood, referred to as hemolymph, is both toxic and smelly. When a ladybird beetle is startled, the blood seeps from its leg joints, leaving a stink and yellow stains behind. These secretions from the leg joints also taste bad and protect the beetles from being eaten from predators such as birds.

The lowdown on lady beetle spots.
Variations of spot patterns and colors of the
Asian mulit-colored lady beetle
(Photo: Bill Ree, Texas A&M Univ.)
The spots on a ladybird beetle do not tell its age. The sex of a lady beetle cannot be determined by the number of spots either. The spot patterns of the beetles vary widely from species to species. The number of spots and the color among ladybird beetles of the same species can vary greatly as well. The bright colors and spots of lady beetles warn predators that they taste yucky.

Can I keep a lady beetle as a temporary pet?
Sure! Keep your ladybird beetle in a bug box or terrarium-type container. Keep the container and foliage moist by gently misting the interior container with water using a spray bottle. You can feed your lady beetle moistened raisins or other sweet, non-acidic fruits. Or you may want to collect some aphids from ornamental shrubs and place them in the container for the beetle to eat. You can even watch the entire life cycle with a ladybird rearing kit (can be purchased online) where you get to watch the larvae grow and turn into adult ladybird beetles.

Wives tales and superstitions about lady beetles:
  • The ladybird beetle is supposedly a luck-bringer. I was always told that it was a sign of good fortune if one landed on a person. The beetle must, however, be allowed to fly away on its own and not be brushed off. Supposedly, you can cause the lady beetle to fly away by singing a children's nursery rhyme, which goes like this:
Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home. 

Your house is on fire and your children are gone. 
All except one, and that's Little Anne.
For she has crept under the warming pan.
  • If a ladybird beetle does lands on you and then flies away, then watch it carefully; the way it flies is the direction of your true love.
  • If a ladybird beetle enters your house, a visitor will come (for folks dealing with large numbers of lady beetles invading their house this fall, this may or may not be good news!). 
  • In northern Germany, it was believed that if the ladybird beetle had less than seven spots, then they would have a large harvest.

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