by Alix Whitener
While it may seem startlingly bizarre to come across a sea of red ladybeetles up in the Cascade foothills, this observation of insect behaviour has a logical explanation. Quite a few of Peter and WenOut’s speculations are correct!
Typically, ladybeetles, sometimes called ladybugs or ladybird beetles, are solitary. But as winter approaches, they release chemical cues, called pheromones, communicating to one another that it’s time to get together and hibernate, often at high elevations.
During this group hibernation period, the beetles undergo what’s called diapause: a time where they suspend growth, development and reproduction. Winter is a time where resources are scarce and the temperature is unfavorable, especially for insects who, unlike mammals, cannot self-regulate their body temperature. To cope with winter in the northern hemisphere, insects who overwinter as adults like the ladybeetle slow their metabolism down, cease reproduction and feeding and find a small place to hunker down.
As winter ends and temperatures begin to rise, the beetles crawl out of crevices, cracks in bark and other tight places to begin mating before dispersing, reproducing, and starting the process all over again. So I suppose you could say they’re peak baggers, if only for once in their life cycle.
Most ladybeetle species are predaceous, but while they don’t feed on lichen, there are several species of ladybeetle that are herbivorous. Despite their name, ladybugs are neither bugs nor exclusively ladies. Bugs belong to the order Hemiptera (think stink bugs, boxelder bugs, squash bugs, and the like) while ladybird beetles, well, are beetles. Beetles belong to the order Coleoptera (other common examples are ground beetles like the ones we see on the trail with their abdomens pointed to the sky when startled). And while not all ladybeetles are ladies, they got this name in Europe dating to the middle ages, when farmers thankfully referred to them as ‘Our Lady’s Beetles,’ grateful for the help the beetles provided against crop pests.
To this day, ladybeetles are important biological control agents in our local tree fruit agricultural industry, as well as in our backyard gardens. Their larvae are particularly fond of aphids and other soft-bodied insect pests. With over 400 species of native ladybeetles in North America, they are also important to our local ecosystem.
To see the article by Peter Bauer that Alix referenced at the start of this article, click here.