Three curious naturalists were picking blackberries from an extensive blackberry patch belonging to a friend south of town. Like all blackberry patches, this one contained an abundant supply of wildlife. Fortunately there were no chiggers or ticks as there would have been in Arkansas, but there were tarantula killers, mud daubers, and a multitude of small, round beetles of various colors. In spite of these inhabitants, the bushes were loaded with luscious, juicy, unharmed blackberries. The naturalists knew that tarantula killers and mud daubers were predators, feasting on insects of many kinds. Could it be that the little beetles were also predators?
A trip to the “bug section” of the Midland County library revealed that the mini-beetles were two of the more than 150 species of “ladybugs” found in the United States. “Ladybugs” are not bugs, and 50% of them are not ladies! They come in many different colors, but are typically hemispherical in shape, the underside quite flat and the forewings completely covering the body. Their head is extremely small and so sunken into the first body segment that they seem to have no head at all. Their legs are very short. They are members of the order Coleoptera, or beetles, not Hemiptera, or bugs.
The two kinds of ladybugs found in the blackberry patch were much smaller than the typical orange, black-spotted ladybug so familiar to most gardeners. One kind was a light gray with three rows of tiny black dots. The other was ebony black, with a bright red triangle on each forewing.
Ladybugs are among the most useful of all insects. Various species feed on aphids, citrus mealybugs, scale insects, bean thrips, red spiders, alfalfa weevils, the eggs of potato beetles, and chinch bugs. Because of its food preferences, the ladybug is one of the best-liked insects in the world. Its names of ladybug, ladycow, ladyfly and ladycock all date to the distant past and its dedication to Our Lady, the Virgin Mary. In Sweden ladybugs are sometimes called “Virgin Mary’s Golden Hens.” In Europe, ladybugs are supposed to bring fair weather, and also help young ladies to find husbands.
In the mountains of the west, ladybugs have the curious habit of gathering by the hundreds of thousands in high passes. At least one mountain in Arizona has a pass called “Ladybug Saddle.” Thee congregations form in the late fall, and the beetles spend the winter among the rocks of the passes. Apparently ladybugs are able to survive colder temperatures than their enemies, and long ago evolved the habit of migrating to colder areas to hibernate safe from their natural enemies. Some passes have been used by the beetles for as long as men have known about the pass, and certainly for ages before white man came.
With the ever-increasing emphasis on natural biological controls of harmful insects, many of these gatherings of ladybugs are collected alive in the spring and shipped all over the United States. They are placed by the handfuls on the ground under plants that are infested with some pest. The natural reaction of the ladybugs is to crawl up the nearest plant, and they are soon routing the pests, much safer and surer than a chemical spray.
Photo by Erin M. Seale