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November 1, 2023 by Sue Ercolini - Views: 58

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As a child I loved to play outside and why not?  We didn't have cell phones or computers, we had the old Royal typewriter or the IBM Selectric at school.  It was fun to play with for a short period of time trying to learn the keyboard…the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog, remember?    But it did not compete with being outdoors in the fresh air or playing touch football with the neighborhood kids!  And, a sign of good luck was when a ladybug landed on you as it often did. We would recite the rhyme ´Ladybug, ladybug fly away home´ and blow on it to help it on its way.  I wonder if this still happens in this age of electronic devices!

S678-1.jpgS678-2.jpgLadybugs are loved by the world and are known for their red and black spots on their wings.  And despite being commonly mistaken as a bug, they actually are beetles and are known as ladybird beetles or lady beetles to scientists.  Legend has it ladybugs were named after the Virgin Mary or Our Lady.   In the Middle Ages swarms of aphids threatened crops and European farmers prayed to the Virgin Mary for assistance.  Apparently, she listened, sending in swarms of ladybugs that ate the destructive pests.  The thankful farmers called the insects ´our lady´s beetles´.  And, how interesting that our late President Lyndon Johnson's wife was nicknamed Ladybird.  A nickname given to her by her nurse, Alice Tittle who commented that she was as pretty as a ladybird.

Ladybugs are common this time of year as they start looking for places to spend winter.  When temperatures drop, ladybugs ´overwinter´ (a type of hybernation) under leaves, rocks and tree bark, and some in the nooks and crannies of our homes.  To stay warm, they usually huddle together in large groups called  a ´loveliness of ladybugs´.  This helps them conserve resources and brings males and females together for reproductive purposes. 

S678-3.jpgS678-4.jpgIn the spring when temperatures reach 55 degrees when food usually becomes available, they break out of their hibernation to search for aphids, scale, mealy bugs, fruit flies and other pests.  They produce a  pheromone to lure mates.  The females can store the sperm for 2 to 3 months while she looks for aphid colonies.  She lays up to 300 tiny, yellow eggs on the underside of leaves right in the middle of the colonies to provide her baby larvae with ample food when they appear in 2 to 5 days.  They look like little black alligators with orange spots or strips.  The adult ladybug can eat up to 75 aphids a day but the larvae can eat up to 10 times as many.  Three weeks later, they develop a hard case and begin a resting stage called the pupae.  A week later, a fully developed ladybug emerges with a bottomless appetite for aphids!!!  

Its body has a head with mouth parts, compound eyes, and antennae; thorax with 3 pairs of legs and two pairs of wings; and, abdomen with the organs for digestion, respiration and reproduction .  The first pair of wings is the outer red and black dot hard shell called the ´elytra´ that protects the flight wings underneath.   When the ladybug takes flight, the elytra opens, and the thin, veined wings unfold.  These wings can flap up to 85 times per second but only if it's above 55 degrees…cooler weather they crawl.  They have been clocked at 37 miles per hour at 3,600 feet.  The adult can live for over a year.

S678-5.jpgAlthough we associate ladybugs with red shells and black spots, there are many color and shape variations and some have no spots at all.  This should come as no surprise, considering there are over 4500 species of ladybugs worldwide and over 400 in the United States with 11 in South Carolina.  The most common ladybug is the red, seven-spotted beetle that overwinters outside.  The species of ladybug you see inside your home in the fall is the Asian lady beetle native to China, Russia, Korea and Japan.  In the 1970s our State Department introduced these beetles for chemical-free pest control of our agricultural crops and national forest.  Asian lady beetles can be a light orange to a bright red with many black spots, and can usually be identified by a white area behind the head with a small black M or W, depending on how you look at them.  They are also beneficial to both farmers and gardeners but can be a nuiance.  The Asian lady beetles like to overwinter inside our homes and give off an odor including a yellow substance that can stain walls and carpets if disturbed..don't squash them!  And, they may be one of the causes for the decline of our native ladybugs.

Ladybugs are friends of the garden.  They feed on insect eggs, aphids and other pests.  Worldwide, they are seen as omens of good luck.  They are the official state insect of Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio and Tennessee.  How interesting that such a tiny insect can make such a vast difference in the world…ladybug fly back home to me!■

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