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Ladybug Beetles: Beautiful Backyard Bullies

By Suzanne Holland, Naturalist, Hidden Oaks Nature Center

Remember cupping a ladybug in your closed hand and chanting, "Fly away, fly away, fly away home," just before tossing the delicate creature high into the air? Childhood memories are made of these innocent moments. While ladybugs, or more accurately ladybird beetles (Coccinellidae), look like genteel garden guests, their appearance belies their true nature. Voracious, aggressive and toxic, ladybugs are a fearsome force in the insect world.

Here at Hidden Oaks Nature Center, we celebrate the ladybug through several spring programs for three-to- eight-year-olds. Last year over 800 school children came to hear about the marvels of metamorphosis in our "Growth and Change" and "It’s a Real Bug’s Life" programs. The highlight of every class field trip is the release of each child’s own ladybug into the Virginia Native Wildflower Garden. Squeals of delight fill the air as the ladybugs take flight in search of aphids or scale insects to rid from our gardens.

Throughout the world people venerate ladybugs. Legend states that the name ladybird beetle, or "beetle of our lady" was bequeathed in the Middle Ages as a dedication to the Virgin Mary after she sent the insects in answer to a prayer. Other countries have similarly honorific names including Flower Lady (China), Good News (Iran) and Lord God’s Little Fatty (Switzerland).

Admiration for the ladybug is clear from the array of magical powers attributed to this common beetle. In Austria, the ladybug is said to produce fair weather upon request. In Switzerland, it is the ladybug, not the stork, that delivers human babies. In Central Europe, if a maiden catches a ladybug and lets it crawl across her hand, she will marry within the year.

Ladybug luck is also celebrated globally. Farmers glorify the beetle for its prodigious appetite for aphids, a serious crop pest. In its one-year lifetime, one ladybug can eat 5,000 aphids. With females each laying as many as 1,000 eggs, the offspring from a single lady-bug could consume 200,000 aphids in a season.

Despite childhood traditions, one cannot discern a ladybug’s age by counting its spots. In fact, not all of our ladybugs are the common red with black spots. In fact, these garden guard-ians include 5,000 different species! Ladybugs can be spotted or plain. They come in colors as different as red, black, yellow and orange, warning colors (think stoplights) to predators of their toxicity.

With their hard outer wings, called elytra, covering their delicate inner flight wings, beetles can thrive in harsh environ-ments. This outer armor is just the beginning of its protective forces. When irritated, the ladybug flips over and secretes a foul-smelling yellow liquid from its legs, usually driving away the would-be at-tacker. Even humans can detect the potent smell when ladybugs swarm.

Ladybugs go through a complete metamorphosis, similar to butterflies. The young look surprisingly different from the adults. The black body is long and speckled with red dots. The six legs are splayed to the side. Also partial to aphids, the larvae can each consume 300 pests per day.

As spring returns, so do the ladybugs and the school children to Hidden Oaks Nature Center. Within a few weeks we explore the eggs, larvae, pupae and adults, all on a single multi-flora rose (Rosa multi-flora) bush along the Old Oak Trail. The popular programs are designed to help teachers address many of the Standards of Learning for Kindergarten through third grade. See our web site at www.fairfaxcounty. gov/parks/resources and select Hidden Oaks on the Sites button to find the "Spring 2002 Program Menu."

Visit Hidden Oaks this spring to witness the marvel of metamorphosis for yourself and discover more amaz-ing facts about our local ladybugs. Ask a naturalist for information on how to introduce these natural pest controllers into your garden.

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