Tiny Harbingers of Halloween, Ladybugs Take Hitchcockian Turn

Like humans, ladybugs move indoors when it turns cold in October.
Like humans, ladybugs move indoors when it turns cold in October.
By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 22, 2006

For years, "the little monsters," as Candace Terry calls them, have arrived toward the end of every October like malevolent little trick-or-treaters, sneaking through the cracks and taking over your home.

But no experience could prepare her for what she saw when she walked into her western Loudoun County dog kennel Wednesday afternoon: little red-and-black trespassers covering the walls like wallpaper come to life, collecting in corners and squirming an inch deep on the windowsill. Back home, they had blanketed her bathroom walls and skittered into her books.

The ladybugs were back, and they were everywhere.

"Without exaggerating, [the exterminator] told me there were 40,000 in one spot," Terry recalled. "All I can say is that there were jillions of them."

For a few days, the usually beneficial creatures lose their nursery-rhyme charm and garden-friendly reputation and become a nuisance across the Washington region and the country, collecting by the tens of thousands in buildings in their search to find a warm place for the winter.

As if the mere presence of tens of thousands of bugs in your living room isn't enough, they emit a gut-churning musky odor that lingers after they die -- and they die quickly in dry, indoor air. They also leave yellowish stains on everything, a defense mechanism called "reflex bleeding."

And they occasionally sting -- a light pinprick less painful than an ant bite, Terry said.

Other than that, they aren't particularly harmful, said Eric R. Day, manager of the Insect Identification Lab at Virginia Tech. He thinks the aphid eaters, which offer a summer's worth of free pest control, get a "bad rap" because of the fall invasion.

The type of ladybug that causes the ruckus is the Asian lady beetle, an invasive species present in the eastern United States for about 13 years, he said. How the bugs got here is unclear, but the best guess, Day said, is that they hitched a ride on cargo ships or escaped from U.S. Department of Agriculture experimental fields, a charge the agency denies.

However they arrived, they hit the region with gusto last week, lured out of forests by the warm daytime sun and driven indoors with the evening chill, he said.

"You get these warm days at the end of October, and they get active," he said. "If you have a house that's infested, you can literally find thousands and thousands inside."

The phones at the LeMarr Group, an exterminator in Fauquier County, have been ringing incessantly since the red-and-black cloud descended. On one of Ron LeMarr's first jobs Wednesday, he entered a large home with a swarm so dense it obscured the house's cathedral ceilings, he said.

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