Known as ladybugs, lady beetles, or ladybirds (Brit.), these voracious feeders are a welcome site in any garden.
Members of the Coccinellidae (Co-see-nell-e-day) family, they are not true bugs at all. True bugs have piercing and sucking mouthparts, wings that are membranous or hardened only at the base, and they are born as miniature adults. Lady beetles (the correct name) have grasping jaws, a hard shell, and they go through distinct developmental stages. The ladybug of your childhood is actually a beetle.
* The number of spots on the insect's back does not indicate its age. Coloration and spot arrangement are determined by species and genetics.
Over the course of its life, a single lady beetle may eat 5,000 aphids! Many novice gardeners buy lady beetles, but this is unnecessary. If a garden has aphids, lady beetles will find them. You can attract lady beetles by planting brightly colored flowers that provide food, shelter, and landing zones for lady beetles and other beneficials. Also, avoid using broad spectrum chemical pesticides.
There are more than 4,500 species worldwide, with 175 species in California. Most of them are beneficial insects. The Mexican Bean Beetle is a close cousin and it destroys many bean crops. Mexican Bean Beetles are orange with 8 black spots and they interfere with photosynthesis by turning leaves into lacework. Also, introduction of the Harlequin variety (Harmonia axyridis) has been devastating to native populations.
Like skunks and the Monarch butterfly, the familiar bright coloration is a warning to predators. They can secrete an alkaloid toxin from the joints in their legs which tastes awful. This behavior is called “reflex bleeding”. A threatened beetle may also play dead to protect itself.
Lady beetle anatomy
Lady beetles have a protective exoskeleton made out of a protein much like our hair and fingernails. They have 3 main body parts: head, thorax, and abdomen:
Thorax - strong muscles that control the legs and wings
Abdomen - contains organs for digestion, reproduction and respiration [Adult lady beetles breathe air through body openings, called spiracles, on the sides of the abdomen and thorax.]
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!