Why do some lady beetles (ladybugs) have spots and others do not? Are they really good for the garden? Should I buy ladybugs for my garden?
While we regard ladybugs as beneficial, there are some popular myths. Have a look and see how they might help and hurt life in your garden.
Related: Make a DIY Thrift Shop Bug House
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What Were We Thinking?
Wow, times have changed. Do you remember old TV commercials for RAID bug spray? They depicted obnoxious cartoon insects being wiped out by a big spray from the can. Poof, problem solved, right?
It’s quite shocking to think of it now. The entire insect world was singled out as something to be feared and annihilated so we could get on with our lives. As if we can live without this essential part of nature.
Thankfully, today, we know much more about the complexities of the web of life. Nature relies on zillions of intricate, co-dependant relationships for survival. And we cannot live without it. Bugs and all.
Good Garden Bugs
Let It Bee
One of the best ways I’ve found to outsmart pesky insects in my garden is to plant diversely. I started to notice this when I first started gardening. If I planted a large area with one crop, it was an easy target for pests. Once I started planting my veggies amongst my flowers, I didn’t have problems. My perecption then was that I had confused the pests with scattered targets, but, more likely, the diversity of the plantings was attracting lots of good predators to naturally control pest populations.
You can read more about diverse planting here: How to Create an Edible Landscape.
Good Garden Bugs: Everything You Need to Know About Beneficial Predatory Insects (at Amazon.com) by Mary M. Gardiner features what Mary refers to as ‘natural enemies’. These are good garden bugs that provide natural pest control in the underbelly of the garden.
Lady beetles (ladybugs, lady bird beetles, Coccinellidae) are a good example of welcome pest predators. Their daily meals include aphids (Aphididae), spider mites (Tetranychidae), thrips (Thripidae), and scales (Coccoidea).
But, like many species, it’s not all good news. The Asian lady beetle (Harmonia axryidis) is a non-native species which is invasive in North America. These are the ones people find overwintering in their homes each year. You can read more about it below.
There are many other ‘good bugs’, of course, including spiders, lacewings, wasps, and more. Our own fears often slot them into undesirable categories, but, once you learn what they are up to, they soon become welcome little superheroes in nature.
If you need help identifying insects or want to learn more, there are resources at the bottom of this page.
7 Surprising Facts about Lady Beetles
By Mary M. Gardiner, author of Good Garden Bugs: Everything You Need to Know About Beneficial Predatory Insects.
1. Not all lady beetles are red with black spots. Their elytra (or wing covers) may be red, black, yellow, or even metallic blue and may or may not include spots.
2. The larvae of most lady beetles are slender predators with a black spiny body with light markings. Some, such as those in the genus Scymnus appear bright white as they produce a protective waxy secretion.
3. Lady beetles feed on a number of different prey including aphids, scales, mealybugs, and caterpillars.
4. The eggs of lady beetles are bright orange and football-shaped, laid in clusters on plant leaves, stems and tree bark.
5. The multi-colored Asian lady beetle (Harmonia axyridis) has given ALL lady beetles a bad name. This exotic, introduced species is a voracious predator of garden pests but it also invades homes to overwinter and feeds on fruit including grapes in late summer. If beetles are harvested along with grape clusters they can be crushed in the wine-making process adding a unique and distasteful flavor to the finished product.
6. Lady beetles love flowers! Both the adults and larvae of lady beetles feed on pollen and nectar. Providing these resources are important to extend their longevity in the garden.
7. Unfortunately several species of lady beetles have declined significantly in the United States. These include the nine-spotted and two-spotted ladybeetles. You can help to survey your home landscape for lady beetles as part of a citizen science program titled: The Lost Ladybug project. See their website for details on how to get started: http://www.lostladybug.org/
Buying Lady Beetles
Should I Buy Lady Beetles to Help My Garden?
Maybe not. You have to know the source and understand how the insects were collected and reared.
Mary writes, Wild-collected populations are not guaranteed to be free of diseases or parasitoids. Releasing these lady beetles could mean releasing their afflictions as well, which could impact established convergent lady beetle populations in your region….
Also, lady beetles collected in the wild are usually over-wintered which means, upon release in your garden, they will probably fly away before dining on any pests. Good-bye, money!
The collection of wild ladybugs for sale is also questionable. Often they are collected from winter habitats and their removal is disruptive to those environments.
Between the possibility of disease, the ethics of collecting them, and the chance they will fly away, it’s probably not a good option.
Unusual Lady Beetles
1. Metalic Blue Lady Beetle
2. Checkerspot Lady Beetle3. Twice-stabbed Lady Beetle4. Scymnus larvae This photo may prevent you from harming future Lady Beetles! Yes, it may look creepy but don’t disturb larvae—you want these guys working in your garden one day.5. Harmonia adult and larvaHow about this one? That long insect beside the red lady beetle is actually an Asian Lady beetle larva. It’s always good to know who your friends are!Have you noticed any unusual Lady beetle species in your garden? For years I have noticed various ladybugs without spots. Now I know it was actually different species—I assumed they were just waiting to grow their spots!
- Good Garden Bugs: Everything You Need to Know About Beneficial Predatory Insects by Mary M. Gardiner
- The Lost Ladybug project -a citizen science program tracking the decline of some Lady beetle species.
- Bugguide.net – online community of naturalists who enjoy learning about and sharing observations of insects, spiders, and other related creatures.
- Interview and podcast with Mary M. Gardiner with Margaret Roach of A Way To Garden
I hope you enjoyed this excerpt. Grab a copy of the book if you want to know about the bugs in your garden.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛