August 28 – Dude Looks Like A Lady

Today’s factismal: If a ladybug gets into the grapes when you make wine, it can make your Riesling taste like a Sauvignon blanc.

Ah, ladybugs! One of the joys of youth (“lady bug, lady bug, fly away home!”) and the joy of gardeners everywhere (at least until the gardener realizes that the lady bug is eating the plants and not the aphids), these amazing little critters never cease to amaze. They are full of contradictions and confusions, as you might expect for a group of beetles that includes more than 5,000 species spread over six continents.

A nine-spotted ladybug (Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

A nine-spotted ladybug
(Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

For example, their name. In England, they are lady bird beetles, named for Mary (“Our lady”) due to their red color which resembles the red cape that Mary is often depicted wearing. In Germany, the name is “Mary’s beetle” (marienkäfer). In Eastern Europe, they are called lady flies. In Scandinavia, they are lady cows (that last sounds a bit disrespectful). And in America, they are called ladybugs. But to a biologist, they are coccinellidae (“red backed beetles”).

And then there is what they eat. Though most species of ladybug feast on spider mites, aphids, and other insect pests that feed on plants, there are several species such as the Mexican bean beetle and the large leaf-eating ladybird that prefer to skip the middle-bug and eat the plant themselves! And even the ladybugs that prefer to gnaw on other insects can turn into pests once the aphids have run out; they have even been known to nibble on humans! (No word on if SyFy will turn this into a TV movie – “Ladybugtopus”.)

And then there is the ladybug’s color. Though most ladybugs are red with black spots, some are yellow or orange with black spots and a few are even black with orange spots. But in all cases, the purpose of the color remains the same; it is a warning to other critters not to eat them because they taste nasty. And that nasty taste can sometimes affect people, too. When grape pickers annoy the ladybugs, the beetles release chemicals to scare them off. If those chemicals don’t get washed off before the grapes are pressed they can make the juice bitter and like ammonia; this effect, which can make a sweet wine taste like a dry one, is known as ladybird taint.

A multicolored Asian ladybug (Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

A multicolored Asian ladybug
(Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

But the most confusing thing about ladybugs is how they respond to changes in their environment. In addition to the shifts in temperature and moisture caused by changes in climate, the ladybug is being stressed by (believe it or not) the ladybug! During the early part of the last century, many organic farmers introduced non-native ladybugs in an attempt to control aphids and other plant pests. Unfortunately, the non-native ladybugs had few predators and so soon started crowding out the native ladybugs. As a result, many ladybugs are becoming rarer. But biologists don’t know how rare they are.

A transverse ladybug (Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

A transverse ladybug
(Image courtesy Lost Ladybug Project)

And that’s where you come in! The next time you are outside, look around for ladybugs. If you see one, report it at the Lost Lady Bug Project. Your garden will thank you!

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