It’s a day I’ve been waiting for. It happens once per year — the day the ladybugs swarm in a wild tornado around the south side of our white farm house, looking for a way in. The Attack of the Ladybugs.
It’s been happening at this house for almost 150 years. Just before the first hard frost, ladybugs gather on the sunny, south sides of large, light-colored objects: trees, houses, boats. They’researching for escape from the oncoming winter.
For as long as I can remember, the space between the storm-and double-sash windows of this old farmhouse harbored thousands of ladybugs every winter. When my grandmother was older and not as concerned about appearances, she let the ladybugs winter over inside, as well. There’d be ladybugs sleeping in every empty glass, in the piles of papers on the dining room table, in the corners of the room. I never thought it was odd–it was just my grandmother’s way: harboring her garden friends through chill and snow.
Actually, I had about given up hope we’d have the Attack this year. Hurricane Irene did a real job on our wildlife population, including wiping out a good 2/3 of our bat colony. What other species had been blown into oblivion? And then the coup de grâce–the nor’easter, the largest October snowstorm in recorded New England history. Trees destroyed wherever you looked, plants killed months before their time. But two days after the dump, while helping the folks clear their driveway of downed limbs, we spotted spiders spinning new webs in the sunshine. Maybe, just maybe, the ladybugs made it through, too?
Turns out, ladybugs lead much more complex lives than I knew. We all know they eat aphids–those terrible creatures that destroy our roses, fruit and soft veggies. But other than that and the nursery rhyme, all I knew was they were red with black dots.
Coccinellidae is a family of beetles numbering more than a whopping 5,000 species. Most are red, orange or yellow with black spots, but rumor is a few species are black. Never seen any of those, personally, but maybe one day, on some exotic trip. Ladybugs are voracious predators, eating millions of garden pests during their short life times (only 3 weeks!), and when their food source is taken away, they are known to bite people. They are also known to lay unfertilized eggs beside fertilized ones, giving the little hatchlings a ready meal when they become mobile. A final tidbit is that, like the Blister Beetle I stumbled upon in the sheep field a few weeks ago, the ladybug practices chemical warfare. When threatened, it excretes a foul-tasting fluid from the joints of its legs.
Chemical warfare runs rampant in nature. We all know that gila monster, skunks and toads use chemicals to protect themselves from threats, but this type of protection isn’t limited to animals. Florae such as poison ivy and rhubarb leaves use similar protection. And of course, there are the plants and animals that use chemicals to catch prey–snakes, pitcher plants and Venus flytraps. It’s a dangerous world out there. Beware the ladybug!