1. Ladybugs, also called ladybirds, are not true bugs (Hemiptera family)… and certainly aren’t birds either! They’re small beetles of the Coccinellidae family, as evidenced by their hard shells. We really should be calling them ladybug beetles or ladybird beetles.
2. Not all ladybugs are red with black spots. Many are yellow or orange with black spots and some are black with red or yellow spots. And they come in all sorts of other colors, with or without spots. Some are striped.
3. Ladybugs are typically dome-shaped with short black legs, heads and antennae. This rounded shape is designed to protect them from predators such as ants: when they press down hard on a flat surface, they offer nothing for ants to get a grip on.
4. The bright colors of ladybugs are a warning to possible predators. Many have a nasty taste and are, indeed, slightly toxic, although not to large animals like pets and humans. Their colors say “if you eat me, you’ll be sorry!”
5. And no, you can’t tell the age of a ladybug by counting its spots. They may well help indicate the species, though. For example, Coccinella septempuctata has seven spots while C. novemnotata has nine spots and C. undecimpunctata, eleven. However, if the number of spots on a ladybug did indicate its age, most would have but one spot, as they typically live only one year.
6. Did you know ladybugs can bite? They don’t do it very often, and the bite is usually more surprising than painful, but they can.
7. Ladybugs can certainly fly, but when they land, they fold up their wings out of sight under their two-part shell (called the elytra) to protect the fragile structures from predators.
8. Most ladybugs are considered beneficial: predatory, they largely feed on other insects, especially aphids (plant lice), whiteflies, mites and scale insects. Some species eat up to 75 aphids per day! Their presence is considered a blessing by gardeners and farmers alike.
9. Some ladybugs, though, are herbivores and eat the plants we grow. Like the black sheep in human families, we don’t like to talk about them. One that can be a serious garden pest is the Mexican bean beetle (Epilachna varivestis).
10. Adult ladybugs are certainly cute, one of the rare insects other than butterflies most people find attractive, but their larvae… less so. They often look like tiny alligators!
11. The name ladybug (ladybird) was originally “our lady’s beetle”, a reference to the Virgin Mary. One legend claims the name dates back to the Middle Ages when a group of farmers prayed to the Virgin to save their crops from an aphid infestation. Suddenly a horde of labybugs arrived, ate the aphids and saved the crop. From there on, they were known as our lady’s beetles!
12. The seven-spot ladybug (Coccinella septempunctata), in particular, is said to represent either Mary’s seven joys or seven sorrows (that depends on who you listen to). In many other languages, too, there is a religious reference to ladybug naming. The Russian common name, божья коровка, for example, means “God’s little cow”.
13. Beneficial or not, some ladybugs are outstaying their welcome. For example, the Asian ladybug (Harmonia axyridis), also called the harlequin ladybug, was imported into the United States from Asia in 1916 to control aphids but has since run amok, outcompeting native species, many of which are in serious decline. It has also invaded Europe and Africa.
14. In temperate climates, many ladybugs aggregate for the winter, forming large clusters, usually on a south-facing surface. This helps them keep warm. When spring comes, the clump breaks up and they all go their own separate ways.
15. And some species, including again the Asian ladybug, don’t just aggregate, they invade, moving into homes in the fall – often by the hundreds! – seeking shelter and warmth. Once they’ve found a warm winter nook, the happy home invaders leave a special pheromone trail to invite others to do the same. The scent can last for years, so some homes are invaded over and over. For more on this, read When Ladybugs Invade.
16. When ladybugs are disturbed, many will emit a yellowish liquid (actually ladybug blood!) with a distinctive and rather unpleasant scent rather like rancid peanut butter. This “ladybug taint” can spoil the flavor of wines if too many ladybugs end up in the juice.
17. Some species of ladybug lay a mixture of fertile and infertile eggs. When the larva hatches and there is not yet enough insect prey to feed on, it will consume the infertile eggs.
18. Actually, if it runs out of infertile eggs, it may well eat its brothers and sisters. Yes, many ladybugs are part-time cannibals!
19. In many cultures, ladybugs are considered to be bringers of good luck. Some believe that if a ladybug lands on you, you should count the spots, as you’ll have that many months of good luck.
20. And if you kill a ladybug, you’ll have that many months of bad luck.
Ladybugs: so much more than just a pretty shell!