Lost Ladybug Project helps scientists understand insect's decline

Ladybugs are important because they eat other insects that harm crops.
Ladybugs are important because they eat other insects that harm crops. (Istockphoto.com)
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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to find ladybugs!

About 20 years ago, researchers realized that the nine-spotted ladybug had not been seen for a while in New York state, where they were once common. Scientists wondered why. So John Losey, an entomologist, or bug scientist, started the Lost Ladybug Project and has been compiling photographs of ladybugs found across the country for the past 10 years.

Ladybugs are cute, little, red bugs, but they also perform a really important job. They are what Losey calls "beneficial insects," which eat bugs that would otherwise harm crops. In fact, if ladybugs and other insects weren't such good eaters, U.S. farmers would have to spend much more than they usually do on pesticides, chemicals that kill the bad bugs.

"Without the ladybugs and beneficial insects out there, we wouldn't be able to grow the crops we do now. If you did, you'd have to use so much more pesticides, so we'd have more pollution in the area," Losey says. "In a lot of cases, there aren't pesticide alternatives."

There are about 500 species of ladybugs in the United States, but only about 75 of those are what you think of as ladybugs: red bugs with black spots. Losey's project focuses on three types of ladybugs that are native, meaning they're from the United States: the nine-spotted, the two-spotted and the transverse ladybug, which has a long stripe instead of a spot on its back.

Losey is trying to figure out why populations of these ladybugs are declining. Maybe something is making the ladybugs sick, maybe the foreign ladybugs are taking over or maybe the ladybugs have simply moved to other places. It's too early for Losey to know for sure. That's why it helps him to get any ladybug photo. It gives him an idea of which species are where. It's important, Losey says, that all the species survive because they eat different bugs at different times.

Losey and his staff have received about 7,000 images of ladybugs representing 40 different species from people all over the country. His goal this summer is to get 100 photos of ladybugs from every state and Washington, D.C. So far, Maryland has sent 87 images, Virginia, 79, and the District, only 4! Colorado has sent in the most images at 1,517!

To find ladybugs, look for them on higher vegetation in a meadow or on a wildflower. Ladybugs also like milkweed plants and roses. A good clue to tracking down a ladybug is a sticky plant. That's because ladybugs eat aphids, which are insects that secrete a sticky sap onto leaves. But really, Losey says, ladybugs could be anywhere during the summer.

The good news is that Losey has received about 150 images of the three ladybugs that he is worried about. But he is still not sure why they are declining or how to stop it. What he does know, however, is the more data he can compile, the more he can learn.

Because of the photos, Losey says, "We are starting to get some inkling of what is happening."

Mission (almost) accomplished.

-- Moira E. McLaughlin

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