Friday, August 10, 2012

Nerding Out About Ladybugs

I've not nerded out this severely since, well, learning you can use regular plastic shopping bags as iron on fabric decals (and here).

One of the reasons I wanted to move out of our home of 13 years was that it came with a half acre of property to maintain. So when we traded our sprawling house for a compact apartment a year-and-a-half ago, we brought some of the terra cotta pots with us, but they remained on our balcony entirely empty through last summer. Not a single geranium. Nothing. This boy was done with yard work, which, I've discovered, is what gardening becomes after a decade.

As our second summer here rolled around, I figured something ought to be happening in our pots, something simple that added a little natural warmth, and being that I'm a white, middle class child of the suburbs I figured I'd honor "my people" with a lawn. I'm not saying we're all good with lawns, indeed most of us are not, but when we have one, even if it's brown and patchy, we tend feel like its condition reflects on us personally, and even when we aren't putting in hours on in the evenings and on weekends, we feel like we should. Yes, anyone with the time and passion can grow a wonderful lawn, but no American subculture is so identified with "the lawn" as mine.

In keeping with my new-found gardening laziness, instead of choosing proper lawn grass, I just bought a bag of hard read wheat berries from the grocery store and raked them into the soil. I had a vision of well-manicured little circles of grass that I would mow for a few minutes a week with a pair of scissors, a perfect companion to our tidy, little apartment. As the seeds started to sprout, I suddenly had a pang of awareness that it really wouldn't be a lawn without a few "weeds" so I added some flower seeds with the idea that I'd let a few grow up through the lawn and blossom. I imagined cheery little lawns with cheery little flowers that required little of me.

And you know what?  So far so good. They're not turning out exactly I'd planned, of course, but that's because it's an experiment, an experiment that I've also come to think of as a piece of art. A couple of the pots look pretty much as I'd imagined -- neat lawns with a couple small flowers. In two others, the weeds, and especially the "dwarf" sunflowers have kind of taken over. I've discovered that I'm not brutal enough to root out such healthy plants, so the pots are getting a little "messy."

And there's a reason that people don't grown wheat grass lawns. For one thing, the stuff grows like wild, often sending up an inch or more of growth in a single day, which means I'm out there giving it a haircut at least twice a week, but as the weather's been particularly nice in the afternoons, I've actually started puttering around out there almost every day, sometimes cutting one blade of grass at a time as I work around the stems and leaves of my weeds. Another reason wheat grass isn't a popular lawn grass, I think, is that it isn't necessarily pest resistant, which has brought, among other things, a nice crop of little flies, as well as something that likes munching on sunflower leaves.

If I do this next year, I probably won't allow "weeds" under this privet; they kind of take away from the sculptural aspects of the tree, but I don't have the heart of uproot thriving plants.  

One day, back in June, as I was just beginning to notice some of this stuff, I spied a nice, fat shiny ladybug. Oh boy, wouldn't that be cool to have lady bugs living here, naturally controlling those little pests. Part of moving to the new place involved getting rid of the television, so I had nothing better to do than to hang out and watch this ladybug. She motored around my lawn for awhile, but after about 15 minutes, she flew up to a window sill, then was gone. Oh well, easy come, easy go.

As July progressed I forgot about the ladybug idea, concentrating instead on grooming those lawns and tending those weeds, actually happy that the "pests" were finding sustenance. Then one day, I saw something I'd never seen before moving quickly along the rim of a pot:

What was this thing? 

It was moving so fast, I couldn't get a good picture of it. Was this some sort of new pest that was going to devour my happy lawn? A bug this big, I imagined, could devour a lot of sunflower leaves, especially if there were more of them. And there there more of them!

After about an hour of observation, it didn't seem like they were chewing on the foliage: they appeared to be hunting. Did I have some kind of predator in my garden?

During the Spring, Calder's grandfather Dick had kindly purchased some ladybug larva for the classroom. Those had been less colorful, but similar. Could I be looking at some sort of ladybug larva? As I sat there watching these fairly incredible, orange and black spiny things scurrying around in the two most overgrown pots, I used my phone to search for photos and found that indeed, I had Multi-colored Asian ladybugs, the most common kind in North America. My visitor from last month had apparently left something behind. This is when I really started nerding out!

As I read, I learned that our agricultural authorities had attempted to artificially introduce the Muli-colored Asian to North America as natural form of pest control. Apparently, there had been several waves of ladybug releases going back to the early 1900s, but none had been declared a success, with the populations dying off as they struggled to adapt to their new environment. That they have finally become established, and indeed now thrive on our continent, may still have something to do with these efforts, but many experts believe the strains that survived were the ones that arrived accidentally through the ports of New Orleans and Seattle.

Please don't write me to warn about swarming during the Fall and Spring. I've experienced that myself and don't believe we have the right conditions for that. I was shocked to learn that ladybugs have a 2-3 year life span and that their swarming behavior as the weather cools happens as they seek out a warm place to hibernate, their favorite locale being inside the walls of buildings. Our walls are brick and concrete.

I performed a census of my ladybug larva, counting 9 of them spread out over 2 pots, although there very likely could have been more hiding down in the grass.

As we'd learned from our classroom ladybugs, I knew the next phase would be the pupa stage, and sure enough, a few days after discovering the larva I began to find orange and black "shells" fixed to the leaves, most of which were right there out in the open, exposed on the sunny sides of the leaves, telling me that ladybugs, in whatever stage, really don't seem to have many, if any, predators. 

Most of the pupae were red/orange and black, but this one started as yellow, then slowly turned to the regular colors.

I never counted more than 8 pupae and found one larva stuck to a leaf, but with only a partially formed shell, for whatever reason not able to make it to the next stage. 

A couple days after all of the larva had retreated into their stage of apparent dormancy, I spied a single lost soul wandering around on the concrete. I used a leaf to scoop it up and deposited in the grass, where it immediately attached itself and began to enter its pupa stage as I watched. This was truly amazing. I'd been there for every step of the way so far and by now I'd committed myself to daily observations, spending a couple hours each evening tending my lawns, while observing my pet beetles.

All of these photos were taken with an iPhone. I'm kind of impressed with the quality.

The first ladybug I spied looked a lot like its mother, big, fat, orange, and spotted, but the second, which had only just emerged, was bright yellow!

The third one I spotted was orange, but without spots. Some of the people with whom I've shared by enthusiasm have speculated that they'd turn orange and "get their spots" later, and I've seen nothing but regular spotted ladybugs since that day, so maybe they're right, although the literature indicates that it is normal for the Multi-colored Asians to, in fact, come in multiple colors.

Most of the pupa husks are now empty, although I'm still watching a couple of them. The one I transplanted is, of course, one of these, and last night I sat and watched as it tried to give birth to itself, pushing, pushing, pushing its way out into the sunlight. It made it about halfway before the temperature dropped at it went dormant for the night. I haven't noticed any movement yet this morning, but it's going to be a warm day, so I'm expecting big things.

It's hard not to think in terms of metaphor when watching a natural cycle like this first hand. I can't avoid reflecting on human child birth as I watch this ladybug do what looks to me like giving birth to itself.

Such a simple thing, really, these bugs in my pots, doing the most natural thing of all. It's strikes me as an odd place for lady bugs to thrive, of course, and being in such a cool, breezy, urban location, I'm anticipating that they'll fly away before long -- perhaps some of them already have followed their mother off into the big world.

But look what I found last night! This appears to be 25 eggs and I've found another 9 on a different leaf! I'm totally nerding out!

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Buddy said...

Welcome to my World Teacher Tom. They are truly fascinating. Soon you will learn the life cycle of their prey and many new vistas will open up. ALL beatles have the same parts. The hard wing cover shells are the elytra. That is where the spots are. The eggs look like little yellow translucent footballs on their ends. They spread their eggs around to protect them from predators. Look up "the Ladybug Guy" on Google for a surprise. The P.I. article. Peace out.

Brenna said...

I found your ladybug post interesting after having lived in Delaware for 8 years and teaching a preschool lesson on DE. The ladybug is the DE state bug. My students always loved my DE theme week. Love your apartment 'lawn.'

RobynHeud said...

We let our lawn go this year in San Diego and it got completely covered in yellow clover. It got about a foot high in places and one day we discovered the ladybug larvae. Everywhere we looked there were ladybugs in various stages and our son found it absolutely fascinating. We even had parasitic wasps and so many other bugs we couldn't identify. This fall we'll be planting a cover crop of vetch, rye, beans, and crimson clover. I'm looking forward to the next ladybug wave.

Jean said...

Waaay cool, Tom. We had ladybug larvae under the slide on our playground. At least twenty of them. When they swarmed in the fall, they hibernated in the door jamb. (at least those that didn't end up flying away to some mountaintop location.) Out here in the Mission Mountains, the Salish-Kootenai tribe actually ends up closing some of the mountain access due to ladybug swarming....and the grizzly bears who feed on them.

Laura said...

:) So cool.

Cave Momma said...

Late last year we moved to a house from a condo. We finally had plants! And we have a TON of bugs. Once Spring came we found tons of ladybug larvae and were able to watch the same thing happen. It was magical for my kids. Now we don't find many ladybugs but we have a huge amount of crickets and grasshoppers that my kids love to catch and release. Honestly, we have more bugs than what I would prefer (seriously... a ton of all types of spiders and crickets) but it is amazing to watch the life.

Laisseraller said...

Great outfit & photos of the ladybugs, New blog on the history of the Ladybug will need to go to eblogger dot com search for History of the Ladybug. Thanks JP

Hilary said...

I feel the same way about the Black Swallowtail caterpillars we observe with the daycare each year. I get at least as excited about the process as the kids do, probably more! It's fun to "nerd out" once in a while! :)