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Ladybugs are beneficial – most of the time

By Emmett Burnett

“Cute as a bug’s ear” is an odd saying, because insects have no ears, per se. And bugs aren’t cute, except for ladybugs.

In fact, little red riding beetle is one of few insects we love. People bomb flies with insecticide, run for their lives from spiders, and will blast cockroaches with a cannon. But the ladybug is revered because it’s beneficial, most of the time. That’s right, I said most of the time, because this polka-dotted cutie has a dark side.

“They can’t stand cold weather,” says Charles H. Ray, Ph.D., an entomologist at Auburn University. “Ladybugs seek warmth in winter, and that warmth can be your house” – hence the expression, “Snug as a bug in a rug.” But snug can become “ugh.”

“Problems occur when large numbers invade the home,” added the Auburn professor. “When disturbed, frightened, or agitated, ladybugs secrete a foul smelling liquid from their legs. It smells pretty bad, especially in closed quarters.” Think of tiny six-legged skunks in your living room. But wait, there’s more.

“The worst ladybug infestation case I ever experienced was in Anniston,” Ray recalled. “It was so bad, the homeowner couldn’t sleep.” And with good reason: He kept waking during the night with ladybugs crawling in his ears, nose, and mouth. “I suggested he vacuum the ladybugs for removal. Unfortunately, he had burned up three vacuum cleaner motors trying to do just that.”

The Anniston situation was an extreme case. Usually a few ladybugs meander where not wanted, but a full-scale siege is rare. Their good outweighs the bad.

“Ladybugs eat aphids and other garden pests,” noted Mallory J. Kelley, regional Extension agent with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System in Wetumpka. “They are beneficial in gardens and prefer the outdoors.” Actually, if the wayward scarlet beetle can’t find a way back outdoors, it will starve to death.

“There is no food source inside,” Mallory says. “Their survival depends on getting out of your house.” Of course it’s best if ladybugs never gain entry. “Seal any cracks and crevices in your home, including windowsills and underneath doors.”

And don’t panic; it’s not an invasion. Though you may see dozens, even hundreds, ladybugs are solitary nomads and do not communicate with each other like ants, bees, or termites. Nor do they bite, sting, carry disease, or eat your food.

But here are some things that may bug you:

“Ladybugs are attracted to the color white,” Kelley says. White windowsills and baseboards, white carpeting, white countertops, anything white, transforms your home into a ladybug bungalow.

Ironically, the insect attracted to vanilla-boring white is one of the most colorful creatures in critter land. But ladybug beauty is more than a fashion statement. Good looks save its life.

The combination of vivid reds with black spot patterns is nature’s barcode warning label. “The colors send a message to predators, ‘Tastes bad! Danger! Stay away! Poison!’” Ray says. Combine that with a hard, difficult to swallow shell, and ladybugs have limited enemies other than other insects, some birds, tree frogs and the vacuum cleaner.

Of the 5,000 worldwide ladybug types, two prevail in Alabama: the multi-colored (from Asia) and seven-spotted (Europe). These two little guys have almost eliminated Alabama’s native species. And though they prefer a banquet of aphids and scale bugs, when primary food sources diminish, some ladybugs will munch crops but seldom do significant damage.

Life isn’t easy for a boy named “Lady.” But the moniker applies to both sexes, which is good, as male or female is distinguishable only by scientists, microscopes or ladybugs in love. Tip: The ones laying 10 to 15 eggs daily during springtime/summer are female.

But life is good for ladybugs. Though no firm population numbers exist, according to Auburn University, only our native species are endangered. The import models are doing just fine. The scarlet insect is a token of good luck in Asia and a garden asset in Alabama. We are graced by ladybugs. A