Thursday, October 22, 2009

With the Beetles

Today was a warm, fall day in Saratoga. I wandered out to the mailbox and as I was coming back, wondering how concerned I should be about receiving an offer for personalized checks that was addressed to someone else, I happened to notice that the front of the house was under siege from hundreds of ladybugs. They were crawling on the siding, the windows, the doors, everywhere. Later in the day, a blue jay started pouncing on the side of the house, presumably to feast on them. I suddenly felt like Tippi Hedren. Now, mind you, I really don’t mind insects, at least in theory, but I’m not wild about huge swarms of them.

I’ve lived in the Northeast for 38 of the past 42 years, and I have never heard of swarms of ladybugs before. I was concerned about being outside; were these everyday, normal, placid ladybugs, or were they some weird, feral, or mutant species? Because I really wouldn’t put it past my luck to end up being skeletonized by a swarm of ladybugs, which is just the sort of Gary Larson-esque demise I’ve always suspected is in the cards. (“Help!”?)

So I did some research, and I discovered that, yes, these are normal, everyday ladybugs which, as is happens, are called in the UK “ladybirds”—although I would be far more terrified to see swarms of Ladybird Johnsons on my house. A ladybug is also apparently called a ladyclock, lady cow, and lady fly. There are— Hang on: “ladyclock”?!

There are about 5,000 species of ladybug worldwide (order Coleoptera), with 450 of them in North America alone. They are a type of beetle; hmm... I knew The Beatles were very popular again this year, but the beetles? Anyway, their common name derives from the Middle Ages, when for some reason they were dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and they were referred to as “beetle of Our Lady.” (I can just imagine her reaction; “Um, gee, thanks, you shouldn’t have.”) Ladybugs are in fact carnivorous; they eat other insects, and any decent gardener (i.e., not me) will tell you that they in fact eat aphids—people will actually buy sacks of ladybugs to get rid of aphids. (Beetles for Sale?) Ladybugs are also fairly voracious; in one bug’s three-to-six-week life span, it can eat up to 5,000 aphids. It’s kind of like me and pistachio nuts.

However, there are some species of ladybugs—specifically the squash beetle (Epilachna borealis) and the Mexican bean beetle (E. varivestis) that eat plants and can be destructive.

This is interesting: there is actually a family of beetles called “pleasing fungus beetles.” (“Please Please Me”?) Oh, I don’t know. (Their family name is Erotylidae—oh, come on, they’re making that up!). Talk about an inordinate fondness for beetles.

Many species of ladybug do overwinter in excessively large numbers, typically on the sides of houses or other large objects (typically the south side, and typically light-colored structures), and often inside houses and other structures (“Here, There, and Everywhere”?), and are getting a reputation as a pest. Still, if they do get into one’s house they are generally harmless and don’t eat or destroy things, or spread disease. Actually, their only downside is that when they sense fear, they excrete their own blood, which is yellow, apparently smells bad, and can stain walls. So going around the house yelling “Boo!” at ladybugs is a bad idea...on so many levels.

There was a recent report on NPR among other places that a town in Colorado was completely overrun with ladybugs, and many trees and leaves were a big pulsing mass of red. (“Strawberry Fields Forever”?) Just today, I came across a story on the Newark Star-Ledger’s site about how New Jersey is being overrun by swarms of ladybugs (there are just so many New Jersey jokes to insert here, I don’t even know where to start). In fact, the site has a video of a school in Maplewood that had to be closed because of them.

Again, ladybugs are generally harmless, but there’s something creepy about being in the midst of a swarm of them.
Officials recommend using a vacuum without a propeller if the beetles swarm in a home. Scientists said ladybugs eat pests to flowers and plants and can give off a foul odor if crushed.
Interestingly, many cultures and countries have nursery rhymes or other songs directed at ladybugs. In the UK there is “Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home/Your house is on fire and your children are gone.” (If Morrissey were an entomologist....) In Russia, a popular children’s rhyme exhorts the insect to “fly to the sky and bring back bread.” And a quart of milk, if you think of it. In Malta, the insect is called a nannakola, and children sing: “Nannakola, mur l-iskola/Aqbad siġġu u ibda ogħla” or “Ladybird go to school, get a chair and start jumping.” A spirited bunch, the Maltese.

Still, the ladybug is one of the only insects that doesn’t get a bad rap, and it is the state insect of Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. (Other states have some sort of butterfly as the state insect; the honeybee is well represented; and get this: New Mexico’s state insect is the tarantula hawk wasp. Why doesn’t that surprise me?) Curiously, Tennessee has four different state insects, including an official butterfly and an official agricultural insect. I guess their state legislature has a lot of free time on their hands.

The Ladybug Lady answers questions about ladybug infestations.
Q. Why do the ladybugs come into my house and die?

A. They require a little humidity. But our homes are usually not very humid during the winter. In fact, they are rather dry causing most of your ladybug guests to die from dehydration. Occasionally, you might witness a ladybug getting a drink of water or even drinking some other liquid.
That’s fine, just stay away from the beer. And bring back some bread.

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