Thursday, September 06, 2012

More Nerding Out Over Lady Bugs!

Last month, I told you of how I was nerding out over the lady bugs I'd discovered living and breeding in the potted plants on our balcony, ending with the discovery of two clusters of tiny yellow, football-shaped eggs.

In the meantime, the first generation I'd "raised" since discovering them as larva are all gone. Of the 9 I'd counted in my census, one, as I mentioned in that post, failed to make it to the pupa stage. It appeared to me as if it had died waiting for a pupal shell that never came. Seven emerged as fully formed adult ladies, living relatively sedentary lives, preferring the topmost outposts on our sunflowers, where they seemed to sit day after day until they were gone. It can get windy out there on the balcony: in fact, most days find the wind kicking up in the late afternoon to the degree that it's impossible to read a newspaper. Could it be they grew tired finally of hanging on and let themselves be carried away? They had never known a world in which the wind didn't blow, so I think that unlikely. I find it more probable that they, one-by-one, experienced the urges that drive lady bugs, spread their new wings, and took themselves off into the world.

This is my poor lady 4-legged mutation that simply failed to make it to its final form.  I can't help but worry that my "help" somehow caused it.

If you did the math, you'll know already that there is one lady bug still unaccounted for. This was the "lost soul" I featured in the last nerding out post, the larva I'd found far away from the pots, crawling on its own across the concrete, and had picked up on a leaf and carried to the grass. I finished that post writing about it's efforts to leave its pupal stage behind:

. . . 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 as 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.

All that day, this half-born lady bug continued to struggle, and the next. It seemed unable to free itself fully from its shell. I began to worry about it. This was not going as it should. I'd plucked the blade of grass upon which it had fastened itself to move it to a place where I could more easily observe it. I worried that this act had caused what was happening, changing the mechanics, removing some necessary leverage the insect needed in order to free itself. When I saw it's legs churning, striving, I took to holding the blade of grass in place with my finger, serving the role of the roots I'd negated, but it didn't seem to make a difference and I hadn't really expected it to. I then retrieved a bamboo skewer from the kitchen and attempted to use it to help pry the poor thing from its shell, gently lifting its body up and away, but careful not to detach the shell from the grass, figuring the lady bug would be doomed to carry that shell on its back forever if it didn't have at least that to pull back against. As we began to enter our third day together, I suddenly thought to have a look at the underside of its body and there I found that it had only 4 legs.

After the last post, reader wrote describing the larva as "tiny dragons," a more than apt description.

This lady bug was never going to extract itself from its shell because it had failed to fully form, it's front part adult, it's rear still pupa. I don't know if lady bugs suffer. When I was a boy, experts told me that dogs do not experience emotions like we do, and I now know that's a lie: dogs feel exactly the things we feel. A man I know once went into the street where a wild rabbit lay twitching after being hit by a car, putting it beyond misery with a quick motion of his wrist, then carrying it gently to a roadside ditch where he buried it. I'm not that brave, I guess, because I couldn't simply squash the deformed lady bug, although I've squashed thousands of bugs in my time. Instead, for better or worse, I chose to free the shell from the grass and, in my arrogance, "give it the chance for a life." I was happy to see it begin to crawl around like the other lady bugs had done, apparently happy to no longer be stuck in place. It found a stalk and, awkwardly, made its way onto a leaf where it stopped, just as the other 8 had done on their first days of freedom.

I went on to other things for awhile and when I returned it was gone. Certainly, it hadn't flown -- that was not a possibility because its wings formed a large part of what had been unformed. I searched the grass below, finally finding my pet struggling back upward. I decided I'd given it all the "help" I could. I've not seen it since.

Side-by-side pupae. Will one emerge to eat the other? I know there are plenty of aphids on the sunflowers to feed an army of lady bugs, so lack of proper food wouldn't be a credible reason for cannibalism.

After the last post, I'd found a third cluster of eggs, bringing my total count up to around 50. I checked them every day, until I began to see itty bitty larva "dragons." They were too small and ultimately too lively to count in the beginning, but by the time they were a couple centimeters long, I was able to consistently find around 35. I don't know if this is a good survival rate or not for lady bugs, but I was feeling pretty good. As they entered their pupa stage, I counted 29. Considering that there may be a few down in the grass, hidden from view, I'm estimating, from past experience with this particular genetic population, in this particular environment, that around 3 in 5 of the original eggs are going to result in adult lady bugs.

If you look carefully, you can see the tiny, just hatched larva.

Strangely, I've found one pupa attached to the white wall of my apartment, far from the pots, much closer to where I picked up the ill-fated "lost soul." I've left it alone despite my wife's protestations. I'm taking it as a second chance to just let nature run its course.

Something I hadn't noticed in the first generation of lady bugs, were these translucent "under wings." I've spotted several of this generation, still yellow from being newly born, spreading these out from under their outer shell. I suppose these are the actual wings they will eventually use to fly. I'd always thought they flew using on red wings with black spots.

Yesterday, was a big day, with several lady bugs emerging. The people who speculated that the spotless orange and yellow ladies would later "get their spots" were right. I've now found that most start out as blank canvases, then duck under leaves for a couple of hours as the dark places form.

One reader, sharing her own lady bug nerding out experiences after the last post, mentioned that she had witnessed cannibalism. I don't know if I'm seeing that or not, but it did appear that one newly "hatched" lady was going after one of its pupal siblings.


Today, I find our sunflowers crawling with a couple dozen lady bugs, with more on the way. As we stand on the verge of breaking all known records for the most number of consecutive rainless days here in rainy Seattle, I'm hoping for one more round of eggs. These I'll take into the classroom for the start of the school year and hope to make a few lady bug nerds of my students.

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Chandler Child Care said...

This is great, thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

My little is in a "love caterpillar" phase. In fact we are off to a 2nd birthday part and guess what she wanted to gift the lukcy birthday boy...yep, a jar of caterpillars (complete with stick, vegetation etc). So sweet.