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Lady Beetles, Ladybugs: A Look At Vermont's Native And Nonnative Species

Several orange ladybugs with black spots gather on a wooden bench.
Alina McCullen
Do you call this a ladybug or a lady beetle? Regardless of the nomenclature you prefer, Kent McFarland from Vermont Center of Ecostudies fills us in on how there's more species of them than you might think in Vermont.

A post on Instagram prompted a conversation with Kent McFarland, of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, about both native and nonnative ladybugs in Vermont. First thing's first though: you may need to expand your imagination when it comes to what a ladybug — or as McFarland calls it, a lady beetle — even looks like.

"They're not all red and they don't ... all have spots," McFarland told Vermont Edition.

"Often when people post a picture these days on iNaturalist, it's often a multicolored Asian lady beetle because those actually even come in different forms. They come with spots, without spots; they come dark red, they come light red, they come almost brown. So that's fine, we're recording where those are," he added.

"But there's a whole lot of other lady beetle species — almost 40 now we know — in Vermont, and they come ... in all kinds of colors: black, brown, red. You know, not just the traditional red-looking, black-dotted lady beetle. But lady beetles, they tend to be pretty small. They have that same form that you'd imagine a lady beetle — they're kind of oval, with like their head almost hidden often. If it looks like a lady beetle that you think of in your head, it's probably a lady beetle even if the color is different."

As McFarland mentioned, you may be familiar with the multicolored Asian lady beetle, which is actually a nonnative species: "It's the one that's like all over your windows in the fall when winter's gonna come. They come into your house because they're trying to find a place to over-winter."

According to McFarland, this particular ladybug had been introduced in different places to address aphid populations.

"In the early 1990s, they sort of just took off and invaded New England," he said. "And in the late 1990s, that's when everyone started finding them in their house." 

And while they can make a nuisance inside the home, McFarland describes them as "horrendous" for native ladybug species — they actually eat native ladybug species. And assessing the status of ladybug species, both native and nonnative, is a project currently underway with Vermont Center for Ecostudies as part of the organization's Vermont Atlas of Lifeproject.

"One of the things we're trying to do is find historic biodiversity data that we can then digitize if need be," McFarland said, "and then compare it to what's happening right now in Vermont."

In the course of the project, McFarland said a 1976 checklist of lady beetles was discovered that noted 34 species in the state at that point. McFarland said they reached out to various people to collect current data and found that 14 of those 34 species hadn't been again spotted in the state since that 1976 inventory.

He said that finding sparked his curiosity with lady beetles.

Citizen scientists have been encouraged to share their photos of lady beetles on iNaturalist, and McFarland said that's even resulted in identifying a few species that hadn't previously been known to be in the state.

"It's easy to go out and take pictures of these," McFarland said, "and we might be able to find ... sort of these missing lady beetles and start to do a little conservation with them too."

Lady beetles are known for eating aphids, and so to cultivate them in your garden or property, McFarland advises similar practices for attracting pollinators: not using chemicals, leaving some unmowed growth for the insects, "really just the common things you would do for a good wildlife setting."

Broadcast on Monday, Aug. 19, 2019 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
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