By: Priscilla Hayes
It was the fall of 1993, and I was dragging my small children with me to the first ever Master Gardener training program for my home county, Mercer County, in New Jersey. Barbara Bromley, the County Horticulturist, introduced the class to the Asian ladybug just as swarms of them started coming into all of our homes to overwinter, finding our homes the closest substitute to the Asian cliffs they were accustomed to.
That year, we were not amused. Although some of my fellow Master Gardener trainee colleagues were clearly entertaining even more numerous populations than we were, they still seemed to be everywhere in the house, crawling on everything and subject to numerous accidental squishings that tended to leave a stain and a somewhat nasty smell. And, I, of course, didn’t want to kill them, but if we put them outdoors, they probably found their ways back in. I imagine there was a lot of killing by my husband when I wasn’t looking.
More than 20 years later, the infestation is down to a few. I thought it was only one (and one dead one, with the live one ceaselessly walking around my bathroom), but today, I saw two at once, both alive and crawling.
I look into the tub very carefully before I shower, and have rescued a ladybug more than once from a surface that surely would receive a flood during my shower, which would send the bug down to the drain.
This is the first of two posts. The second will be about things a gardener should know about both native ladybugs and Asian ladybugs, but this post asks—does it matter? Should I save that ladybug, those ladybugs, time and again?
I have to start with my childhood literary references—things that formed my conscience and my sense of our responsibility to the other organisms on the planet. In Ray Bradbury’s short story A Sound of Thunder, which I mentioned in my last blog post, the death of one butterfly leads to profound changes in the world, ultimately bringing a totalitarian regime into existence. And then, there was Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, which I compared to Eugene O’Neill’s Lazarus Laughed in a school paper written in my high school senior year.
Okay, anyone my age remembers the Heinlein book for two things: the hippie-like, grokking free-love society that the main character starts, and the fact that the book was supposed to be partial inspiration for Charles Manson’s free love society and the murder of Sharon Tate. A Wikipedia article claims this was later proven to be untrue, and Manson had never read the book, but I bet it’s a memory regardless.
The main thing I remember of the book? Valentine Michael Smith, the Earthling raised by Martians, faced with an apartment where the living room had a rug of lawn grass (it’s the future, and apparently outside lawns are very rare), is appalled by the idea of walking on living things.
Leaving that logical—or logistical—problem aside, as I now know that we can’t walk anywhere without walking on living things, most of which are microscopic, let’s agree that, philosophically, we don’t want to harm any more living things than necessary. But, should we be actively trying to save them—and how actively?
The Asian Ladybug, as its name implies, is not native. They were intentionally introduced to a number of states in the U.S. by the United States Department of Agriculture, especially during the 1970s and 1980s, to act as a beneficial insect that would eat plant pests such as “aphids, scale, and other soft bodied arthropods.” They have clearly spread across many more states, including New Jersey, than those to which they were purposefully introduced (there are various references to possible accidental introductions, leading me to believe there must be some pretty good evidence of this).
Clearly, the Asian ladybugs are competing with native ladybugs for increasingly scarce food. Next week for the newest blog post, I’ll be talking with a representative of a Cornell University project, the Lost Ladybug project, to answer questions and clear up misconceptions. But the web is full of questionably panicky assertions, such as that the Asian ladybugs eat natives.
I also saw something that suggested ladybugs in general eat corn borer larvae, so I asked George Hamilton, the Chair of the Entomology Department at Rutgers University, about both the ladybug and corn borer eating—and he confirmed that ladybugs, Asian or otherwise, do neither.
Okay, that’s good. But my Asian ladybug is walking around an awful lot at a time when it should be in diapause, which Hamilton indicated was the word for insect hibernation. I asked him whether this activity would cause it to die, and he indicated that it could, indeed, lead the ladybug to expend all of its fat supplies before it could leave my house for the outside.
So, my Asian ladybug could die regardless of my best efforts.
Or, it could live, and threaten the survival of native ladybugs. Maybe, my saving the Asian ladybug in my bathroom is what will lead to the creation of the totalitarian regime of A Sound of Thunder.
So tell me what you think, and tune in for the next post on how you can help encourage ladybug survival and awareness.