I have been friends with Todd Ugine a long time. Though we’ve never met in person, I’ve developed a good relationship with both he and his wife, and through the computer screen I’ve watched his sweet girls grow. I don’t even remember how we met exactly, though I know it involves flickr, and now we’re IG buddies, too. His photos have always really inspired me, and along the way I found out he is an entomologist. After my post about using ladybugs in our garden, Todd kindly agreed to do a little ladybug Q&A.
Please help the Lost Ladybug Project by uploading photographs of ladybugs in your area to their website. It furthers the cause of science and is a fun, thrifty project to share with your kids. For free coloring pages, ladybug comics, lesson plans, identification tools, visit the Lost Ladybug’s Learning Page.
I know you are an entomologist, but can you tell me your actual job title? I’d love to tell Isobel I know a ladybug scientist.
For the past 13 or 14 years I’ve been an insect pathologist. Insects, just like people, get infected by all kinds of things: bacteria, viruses, fungi, nematodes, etc. My job as a pathologist is to try to figure out how to make pest insects sick with fungal diseases as a form of biological control. I also had several side projects that used other non-pathogenic organisms, like predators and parasitoids (think of the movie Alien), to control pest insects.
The United States Department of Agriculture introduced several ladybug species from Europe and Asia into North America to boost aphid control. They did this over several decades. In the mean time, populations of native ladybugs, which were once commonplace (the NY state insect is the 9-spotted ladybug), have been reported to be in decline and many species are now extremely hard to find. Because many ladybug species are now hard to find, it’s really hard to conduct research on them.
The Lost Ladybug Project
has a huge citizen science component. We enlist the public to take photos of any ladybugs they see and submit them to our website. We use this, along with some collection data, to map the distribution of ladybugs across the US. We have an expert in ladybug identification that lets the rest of the group know when we have a sighting of a rare species. We can then send someone out to collect some of the rare species and bring them back into the lab where we start a colony that we can use for research.
The research we’re currently conducting includes questions like do native and non-native ladybugs hybridize, are they in competition for resources (aphids) or habitat, and did the introduction of non-native ladybugs also introduce non-native pathogens.
What’s the official name for ladybugs?
Short answer: Coccinellids (sounds like cock-sah-nell-ids). Long answer: So, ladybugs are beetles in the order Coleoptera. The family is Coccinellidae. Within the family there are many genera, and within each genus there are multiple species. The one you purchased are Hippodamia convergens, or the convergent lady beetle, named as such because they form huge aggregations in the fall in places like the Sierras.
How can you tell a male ladybug from a lady ladybug? Somewhere along the line as a kid I picked up the adage that spotted ladybugs are female, while ladybugs without spots are male, but that is the equivalent of learning about the birds and the bees through hearsay ? Is there an easy way to tell the genders apart? Does a spotless ladybug mean anything significant?
Spotting on the wings has nothing to do with sexual dimorphism. The males of some species do sometimes small white spots on the first pair of legs (closest to the head) right next to the body, but I’m not sure about H. convergens. I’d be curious to see if the males of the spotless species Coccinella californica has the leg spots, most other males in that genus do have the spots.
The spotlessness is just a characteristic of the species.
How far does a ladybug typically roam? We just let off about 100 in our yard. How close to our yard do you think they will stay?
It depends on how many aphids you have in your yard. If you’ve got tons, chances are you already have ladybugs, if not, then the ladybugs will surely be off to find something to eat pretty quickly. I asked my boss how far ladybugs can disperse, he said upwards of a few hundred kilometers in their lifetime. FAR!
Do ladybugs eat aphids exclusively?
No. There are some species that specialize on spider mites, others eat the eggs of other insects, they like to pollen and sometimes leaf tissue. Don’t worry about leaf feeding, it’s so minor as to go unnoticed by pretty much everyone except someone like me that watches them for a living.
Assuming they don’t get chomped by something that likes to eat ladybugs, I’d say several months. They do spend the winter as adults and emerge in the spring to lay eggs and give rise to the next generation.
Do you have any special information or wisdom about ladybugs that you’d like to impart?
They’re very charismatic and, like the monarch, are recognized by pretty much everyone. They’re a great way to learn about how the world works: some times you eat, other times you get eaten. Check out some pictures of ladybug eggs, larvae and pupae. Learn to recognize them and point them out to people. They’ll be amazed, kids especially.
Thank you so much, Todd, for sharing your ladybug knowledge and amazing photos.