Now that the days are warming back up, ladybugs are returning to the garden!
Ladybugs, also known as Lady Bird or Lady Beetles, are the cover girl of beneficial insects. Known for their ferocious appetite for aphids, they are a welcome sight to any gardener. Ladybugs are not a true bug, but belonging to the beetle family, and there are over 450 species of ladybugs found throughout North America. Not all wear the characteristic red-and-black spots- some are brown, yellow, cream, orange, black, gray or pink. The can have lots of spots or no spots, and stripes, or bands. When the ladybug first emerge from pupation as adults, they have no spots at all.
After 4-10 days, ladybug larva, that look like mini alligators, will emerge from yellow eggs. During its larva stage, it is completely carnivorous- eating up to 40 aphids in an hour. After 2 weeks, it then pupates in a shell and emerges as an adult a week or two later. Ladybugs reach maturity at about 4-7 weeks and live for about a year. Up to 2,000 eggs will be laid in one’s lifetime- but not all eggs are fertile. Some are laid with the sole purpose of acting as food for the newly hatched larva, if needed.
Most species overwinter, cued as days get shorter and temperatures fall. They hide in bark, under leaves, in natural crevices, or structures. Some species, such as the native convergent lady beetle, migrate and then hibernate in mass on mountaintops in the American West. These are the type that are for sale in garden centers, and are harvested by the bucketful during this hibernation. The invasive Asian lady beetle is known for its annoying habit of overwintering inside of houses. Then, once the days start to warm up again ladybugs emerge from their hibernation spots- which is why I’m suddenly seeing so many.
During its lifespan, a single ladybug can consume up to 5,000 aphids. However, most species are generalist predators- consuming insect prey such as scale, mites, mealybugs, whiteflies, larva of pests, mites and, of course, aphids. But adult ladybugs are actually herbivores, also needing pollen and nectar in addition to pests.
Ladybugs find pest infested plants by either the pheromones of the pest or by “help me” signals some plants put out. But to encourage ladybugs to stick around, you need a diverse plant habitat. Make beneficials happy with an assortment of plants to feed, shelter, and provide a place to reproduce.
Right now, most of my ladybugs are found in my cover crops. Cover crops help see many beneficials thought the winter by providing shelter. What I don’t have is an herbivorous source for them. Some of the plants that provide nectar and pollen for the adults include anise, chamomile, coriander, cosmos, daisies, dill, feverfew, goldenrod, heliopsis, laceflower, lovage, and yellow cornflower. In order to encourage these lovely beetles to stick around, I’m in process of getting some of these started.
And why called Ladybugs? Legend has it that during the Middle Ages, crops in Europe were plagued by pests. The farmers began praying to the Blessed Lady, the Virgin Mary. Soon, the farmers started seeing ladybugs in their fields, and the crops were miraculously saved from the pests. They associated their good fortune with the black and red beetles, and so began calling them lady beetles.