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Back to Nature | Commentary by Gini Lomerson
| Thursday, Jul 2, 2015

ginilomersonA couple weeks ago, nature treated me to one of the most incredible bug shows I had ever seen. I was coming back from a couple wonderful days of backpacking in the Los Padres National Forest. No one was in a hurry to get onto the trail right away – it is always hard to leave the solitude of paradise. Plus, we knew it was going to be a hot day, so we wanted to soak up as much of the cool temperature that the elevation and the tree cover provided.

The trail meandered through chaparral and Jeffery pine forests and shirted around canyons. About halfway down, the trail began to cross a dry stream bed that was teeming with tall bushes and other green plants.

As we neared the dry stream bed, the view seemed to take on a burgundy hue. About six feet from the stream bed, I could see that these were some kind of bugs flying down the dry stream bed. I thought without a doubt that I would be covered with bugs as I crossed – but not one landed on me, which amazed me and confused me. Not only did I not hear the familiar sound of buzzing bugs, but I also never saw what they looked like because they were traveling so fast. About 12 feet beyond the stream bed, the bugs were gone.

LadybugI turned around to watch my friends walk through this wall of bugs and was again amazed. The bugs flew above the heads of my friends and then dropped back down to their original flight path.

I couldn’t believe what I saw and had to experience this once again from a different angle – head on. So I went back to the middle of the stream bed and stood stationary as I looked up stream. Now I could see exactly how the bugs avoided any inevitable collision.

They were going so fast that all I saw was a parting burgundy stream of bugs around me. I put out one arm in hopes I would catch on bug on my sleeve, but they simply parted around my arm and then resumed their original flight.

I crossed the stream bed, back to the trail. I noticed a few ladybugs on some of the leaves of the bushes as I got on the path, but I had seen single ladybugs throughout the entire hike. After a few minutes, the trail crossed the stream bed, and there again was the wall of bugs. I asked if anyone knew what these bugs were – and I was told, “ladybugs.”

I was fascinated by this, since I had never seen ladybugs move in masses and didn’t realize just how fast they could fly. Certainly their bodies are not the best designed shape for flying, or so I thought.

Could this be a “bloom” of ladybugs just hatching from whatever they hatch from? I found this hard to believe, since it was the last day of May and it had been fairly warm for the last couple weeks.

Every time we crossed a stream bed, we were amused by what I will call the “flight of the ladybugs.” They were on a mission, and nothing was going to slow them down.

About a half hour later, the stream of ladybugs stopped as abruptly as it had started. Apparently they found what they were looking for, which was going to bug me (no pun intended) for the rest of the hike. I figured I would find the answer fairly quickly once we stopped at the ranger station and inquired. That plan didn’t work, since the ranger wasn’t there. Well, there is always Google; it has rarely let me down.

ladybug2First of all, the correct term is ladybird beetles or lady beetles, although there are many different terms used throughout the world. However, I am going to continue to use “ladybug,” which is the term that originated in North America.

As their name implies, they are part of the family of beetles, specifically the Coccinellidae, which means “little sphere.” There are about 5,000 different species that are found all around the world with about 300 to 400 species living in North America.

Most ladybugs are beneficial predators whose favorite food are aphids. It has been estimated they eat up to 5,000 aphids in a lifetime. They will also munch on other soft-bodied insects such as whiteflies, mealybugs, scales, mites, bollworm, broccoli worm, tomato hornworm, cabbage moth and the eggs of some insects such as moths. They eat pollen and nectar later in the year, which provides them the fat they will require to survive during hibernation. In lean times, ladybugs can resort to cannibalism.

An interesting fact I was not aware of is that ladybugs vary in color and dots. The one that I am most familiar with is the red ladybug with seven black spots. But colors can range from red to yellow to orange to all black. They also vary in the number of spots; some have none while some have up to 15.

It should be noted that spots don’t tell the age of the ladybug, although as the ladybug ages, its spots begin to fade.

You might ask why they have such distinct colors. It is their bright colors that warn predators that they are not tasty and they are toxic. But there are predators that will eat ladybugs. Among those are spiders, toads, assassin bugs and stink bugs.

ladybug3What I found most interesting about the ladybug was its life cycle stages. There are four life cycle stages, and during the first three stages, it looks nothing like the cute ladybug we all know and love. Butterflynature.com had a lady bug life cycle diagram that provides visual snapshots of each stage. (This website is worth checking out, since it provides many other snapshots of other life cycles).

The first stage is the egg. The female will lay 10 to 50 eggs, generally on the underside of a leaf and preferably where aphids are prolific. The larva will emerge from the case in 4 to 7 days, and it looks like an elongated, spikey black bug with orange blotches. It will feed on about 50 aphids per day or any other food source that is available.

As the larva grows, it will molt or shed its outer skeleton four times. This is called larval instar. Within two to three weeks, the ladybug will attach itself to a leaf to begin to pupate. The pupal stage is a resting period during which the insect undergoes a complete transformation and will develop wings.

Within a week, they emerge as a ladybug. It takes about an hour for their shell to harden and their colors and dots to become distinct.

The ladybug will live for about a year, although some species can live for two to three years.

Ladybugs hibernate in large groups when the weather turns cold. The term for insect hibernation is diapause. When temperatures dip below 55 degrees, they are unable to fly. In fact, they will fall to the ground in those temperatures. Ladybugs need heat to survive the cold months, and that is why you will find them congregated in huge colonies in lower elevations or temperate forests.

So, what did I see when I was hiking? I believe it was a migration of some kind, since May-June is the time when ladybugs have been seen moving out of the valleys and up to cooler elevations in search for food.

A few other interesting tidbits about ladybugs:

* When a ladybug flies, it beats its wings about 5,100 times per minute, or about 85 beats per second.

* Ladybugs can fly 74 miles at a speed of 37 mph in one day.

* Ladybugs can be either male or female, with the female being the larger of the two.

* Ladybugs can draw in their heads in, the same way a turtle does, although not as far.

* Ladybugs may hibernate indoors but will not reproduce or lay eggs in homes.

The legend of how ladybugs got their name dates back to the Middle Ages in Europe. Swarms of aphids were destroying crops, so farmers prayed to the Virgin Mary for help. The next day they found ladybugs eating up the aphids, and their crops were saved.

The farmers named the insects, “Our Lady’s beetle.”

 

Gini Lomerson is a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center.

 

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4 Comments

  1. Marilyn Moreno says:

    I’ve purchased boxes full of “Ladybugs” as a natural way of ridding aphids from my garden with over 100 Rose bushes but they always fly away. Now I keep several bird feeders filled with various types of seed & fruit and the birds do a much better job clearing the bad bugs and are very faithful as long as I keep the birdseed available. I have not used insecticide in more years than I can count and I enjoy all the birds as much as the roses.

  2. Jim Crowley says:

    Gini, Great article as usual. Jim C

  3. Andy Cormack says:

    Wow – A truly entertaining, engaging and informative read. Awesome article. Awesome lady.
    Please write some more. Please !!!!

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