(Edited to Add: Check out my Ladybug Q&A with actual Ladybug Scientist Todd Ugine!)
I feel like we’ve been waiting all spring for ladybugs to arrive in a local nursery, but in reality it’s only been a few weeks. Isobel asking me hopefully if it’s ladybug time on a daily basis certainly wasn’t making the time fly any faster, and eventually we stopped dropping by the nurseries to look for them and instead called to see if they were in. We were in the middle of a ladybug crisis, as they weren’t hatching in expected numbers and very few shipments of the tubs of the vermilion insects were being released. I put myself on a ladybug wait list and distracted Isobel while we waited.
We were blessed (or cursed, depending on your preference) with a dozen rosebushes and now that we are attempting to garden pesticide-free, rose beetles and aphids are eating the tender blooms alive. I’d probably spring for a tub of ladybugs each year, anyway, even if we weren’t plagued by aphids, their favorite snack. It’s such a great learning experience for Isobel, and so fun to release them into the backyard. You can actually hear the faint buzz of their eyelash wings as dozens of them test their freedom from their cage.
Having ladybugs in the yard was a special treat, and it was a great way to introduce Isobel to the food chain in a way that didn’t involve a cuddly creature ending up as meat. Isobel actually cheered the ladybugs on to eat our aphids. She learned that they are insects, that they are predators, and that they lay eggs. She saw quite a bit of freaky ladybug sex, too, because as soon as we lifted their lid they must have felt a wave of liberation and a surge of optimism, which apparently resulted in a whole bunch of baby makin’. It was a ladybug orgy, and Isobel and I had front-row seats.
I have a few tips if you are thinking about getting ladybugs for your yard:
– You want to release the bugs in the evening after the sun goes down. It doesn’t need to be dark, but you want to make sure there is no direct sunlight hitting your ladybugs. If sunlight hits them then BOOM! as soon as they are released they will take to the skies and your precious cargo will lend their pest control services to your neighbor’s yard. Once the sun starts to go down they will look for a nice place to snooze for the night and settle down. Hopefully all that ladybug sex will lead to ladybug eggs hatching in your yard thus perpetuating the ladybug cycle.
– To prolong their lives and maintain freshness, ladybugs are kept in special refrigerators at the nursery. They are dark and cool but nowhere near as cold as a refrigerator. If you purchase your ladybugs several hours before you’ll want to release them, you can mimic this situation by placing an ice pack in a small cooler, laying a towel down and then placing the ladybugs on top of it. You don’t want to put the ladybugs directly on the ice pack. The dark, cool environment will help to keep them subdued, which will also help prevent them from flying far away once they are finally released.
– I opened our tub of ladybugs on a low table in the backyard so Isobel could examine them before we put them on our plants. My hand became covered in ladybugs even though it took just a few seconds to open the tub. It tickled like crazy. Isobel scooped some onto her hands as well and we both discovered that one or two in every handful will contain a biter. It’s nothing serious, just annoying really, and they’ll stop immediately if you blow on them, but it’s something to keep in mind if you are doing this activity with kids. Isobel was not thrilled that her new BFF ladybug friend bit her, but she got over it quickly.
– Call your nursery or garden store ahead of time to make sure they have ladybugs before you make a special trip. Better yet, find out exactly what day they receive their ladybug deliveries so your ladybugs will be as young as possible and last that much longer.
– Examine all the ladybugs and chose the container that has the most activity. At the very least, check to make sure they are still alive. Last year we purchased our ladybugs late in the season and out of several hundred bugs only about twenty survived. We had bought an eight dollar container of dead bugs. It was disgusting and I was frustrated. It could have been avoided if I would have checked the container more carefully. The stench that tub was giving off should have been my first clue, but I just assumed bugs en masse were stinky. They aren’t. If your container smells so bad you cannot comfortably hold it under your nose then you can be sure it’s full of speckled corpses, my friend. I’m sure the garden store I bought them from would have accepted a return (for store credit if nothing else) but I was busy and never got around to returning it. My bad again, but it did make me a savvy ladybug buyer this time around.
– Once we were done playing with our bugs we went from rose bush to rose bush, setting the container among the leaves. We’d wait a minute or two for a good number of the tub’s passengers to climb on the leaves and petals before moving onto the next bush. It was much more efficient to do it this way than to do it Isobel’s way, which involved setting each individual bug on a different part of the plant.