Opening a USPS package of live ladybugs is totally creepy. You’re under strict instructions to put them in the fridge as soon as they arrive to let them rest after a long hot journey in a truck, so when you first open the cold cardboard box, they reanimate slowly. They twitch like tiny bug zombies then crawl over each other towards the light. Reaching your hand in to help them out, they fly up into your face and scamper up your arms, and it’s hard not to go squirrely and shake them off. I’d take gentle vegetarian Madagascar hissing cockroaches over these guys any day.
Well I would if ladybugs weren’t so good for the garden.
Ladybugs are voracious predators of garden pests. They eat scale insects, mealybugs, leaf miners, white flies, aphids, pretty much every pest we deal with except slugs, snails, and squirrels. Adults can eat as many as 10-20 bugs a day, and their larvae can eat twice that. Ladybug larvae eat and eat and they can’t fly away, so for organic pest control, the best idea is either to order a shipment of the larvae directly or to try to make your garden welcoming enough for the adults so that they’ll stay and breed.
Sunday’s program was a ladybug release, sponsored by National Grid. Ladybug larvae look like scary black alligators but kids have been conditioned to love the adults – they’ve been swaddled with ladybug accessories since birth. I ordered the adults. We read Eric Carle’s The Grouchy Ladybug, talked about what the bugs need from their habitats, and then the kids did their best to roll out the welcome mat in the garden: watering, finding patches of shade, scouting for where the aphids and whiteflies were eating the crops. We showed the kids how to cup their hands tightly, then we handed each kid one or two bugs at a time to place around the garden. Most of them flew off, but we hoped they landed somewhere close by.
One suggestion you’ll often read is to spray down your ladybugs with a fine mist of sugar water before you release them. This glues their wings closed so they’ll hang around your space long enough to make a home there. We decided not to, and even though I’m sure some escaped by flight, I was glad we hadn’t clipped their wings when I saw them try to fight off swarms of ants.
A few ants can take down a ladybug in a matter of minutes. All those garden pests that ladybugs eat? They’re the livestock of the ant world. They produce a sticky sweet honeydew that the ants eat and feed to their young, so ants will protect their herds of aphids or mealybugs against threats like farmers shooting coyotes. This morning while I was watering in the greenhouse, I saw a fair number of ladybugs munching away at the scale on the lemon tree, but I also found plenty of ladybug wings littering the soil, their bodies having been eaten away. Carnage writ small.