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updated: 5/15/2012 11:33 AM

Ladybugs important part of our ecosystem

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  • Courtesy of Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum Ladybugs eat agricultural pests, play important role in our ecosystem.

      Courtesy of Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum Ladybugs eat agricultural pests, play important role in our ecosystem.

 

Second-graders in Rachel Boehm's class at Hawthorn Elementary School North in Vernon Hills asked, "Why are ladybugs called ladies if they are aren't ladies?"

April showers bring May flowers and a few ladybugs.

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These beautiful hard-coated insects, typically red with black spots, are an important part of our ecosystem.

"They are tremendous carnivores that can eat lots of significant agricultural pests," said Doug Taron, curator of biology at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago. "My favorite ladybug is a reverse one, black with red spots."

The museum uses the tiny black-spotted red bugs to naturally control insects in its Judy Istock Butterfly Haven. Taron suggests that anyone can effectively control pests using ladybugs in their home gardens.

"You can buy them from gardening catalogs," he said.

One reason these little gems are so brightly colored is to deter predators from eating them. Colorful creatures tend to be toxic, and ladybugs are no exception.

There are male ladybugs and female ladybugs. Most likely the name is an Old English reference to the Virgin Mary.

Early paintings depicted her in a red cloak, not unlike these tiny creatures which most often have red shells sprinkled with varying numbers of black spots, depending on the species. In England, one ladybug species is called ladybird; in Germany the term Marybeetle is used. The official scientific term is Coccinellidae.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture imported the Asian multicolored ladybug as a pest control measure. It may have been too effective as native ladybug numbers are now dangerously low, with some species being nearly nonexistent.

The Lost Ladybug Project, sponsored by Cornell University in New York, encourages everyone to be a citizen scientist and to report ladybug sightings.

Efforts from this 12-year-old project have enabled previously lost ladybugs to be found in new locations -- what the scientists call range shift.

Ladybug illnesses have been identified that could be causing the low bug numbers.

Another surprising find is that today's ladybugs are smaller than those that flitted around gardens 100 years ago. Possibly there are more competitors for the foods they eat.

Find out more about becoming a citizen scientist for the Lost Ladybug Project at http://www.lostladybug.org/form/page-1-form-558.php.

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