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August 2009 cover image Franklin Mountains

Ladybug Lookout

Help researchers figure out why numbers of this beloved insect are down.

By Sheryl Smith-Rogers

On a bookshelf in her bedroom, Miranda Mendoza keeps live ladybugs in baby food jars. But only for a few days. “I feed them aphids, take notes and photograph them,” says the Mount Pleasant teen. “Then I let them go in our garden, where I found them.”

So what’s up with a 14-year-old hunting insects? Mendoza is part of a citizen science project that’s surveying ladybug species across Texas and the rest of North America. Started five years ago in a few New York public schools, the Lost Ladybug Project — led by entomologists at Cornell University — went coast to coast last year, funded by a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Using digital images submitted by Mendoza and other volunteers, researchers hope to figure out why native species — particularly nine-spotted (Coccinella novemnotata), two-spotted (Adalia bipunctata), and traverse ladybugs (Coccinella transversoguttata) — are declining. Conversely, numbers of introduced species, namely the multicolored Asian ladybug (Harmonia axyridis), have risen.

“Ladybugs are important — in both managed and natural ecological systems — in suppressing populations of aphids, mealybugs and other insects that eat plants,” explains John Losey, Cornell’s lead investigator. “But each species of ladybugs has a different job in terms of what they eat and where they lay their eggs. So the more diversity we have of native species, the better job they do.”

Of the 450-plus North American species, approximately 136 occur in Texas. Most species are small and drab. Only 70 species (22 in Texas) have the familiar bright wings (ranging from red to yellow) that are often marked with black spots or other patterns.

Want to help? Grab your camera and shoot any ladybugs you can find (this makes a great classroom project). Then upload the images to www.lostladybug.org. An attached data form will ask for the date, time and place where you found your specimen. Check out the Web site for more info on ladybugs (they’re beetles, not bugs) plus tips on how to catch and photograph them (the more images you send, the better). Later, your name and photos will be added to an online listing of contributors. The numbers grow daily!

If you’re lucky, you might even make ladybug history. In 2006, two children collected a nine-spotted ladybug in their Arlington, Virginia, yard — the first sighting of one in more than 14 years!

Overall, though, citizen scientists so far aren’t finding many native ladybugs. Of 2,100 specimens submitted (60 from Texas), 63 percent are introduced species. Despite the bleak numbers, researchers remain upbeat.

“Whatever data we collect from the Lost Ladybug Project is extremely valuable and will aid in the conservation of rare native species,” Losey says.

Ladybugs 101
•  A ladybug can eat as many as 5,000 aphids in its lifetime.
•  Females lay their eggs near pests so larvae — which resemble tiny alligators covered with bristles — can chow down right away.

 

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