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June 7, 2005 > Lovely Ladybugs

Lovely Ladybugs

by Pat Kite

Watching lady and gentleman bugs cavort in my summer garden does wonders for my pest-free disposition. If each Hippodamia convergens female deposits 400 eggs, and each egg develops into a ladybug devouring 5,000 aphids, then by season's close, my yard is minus 2 million aphids. They also eat scale, mealy bugs and spider mites.

The extremely beneficial ladybug has long been considered a gardener's best friend. The English, back in the Middle Ages, lovingly called it a creature of Our Lady. In Germany, the term was Marien-kafer, or "Lady-beetles of the Virgin Mary." In France, Betes de la Vierge, translates as "Animals of the Virgin." The Swedish term is Jung-fru Marias Gullhona, or "the Virgin Mary's Golden Hen."

I remember, as a child, catching a ladybug, then setting it free while chanting the rhyme, "Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home. Your house is on fire, and your children will burn."
Learning the rhyme's history came later. In Europe, ladybug young, or larvae, fed extensively on aphids infesting commercial hop vines used to flavor malt liquors. Usually ladybugs kept the destructive, sap-sucking aphids, pretty much under control.

But sometimes aphid infestations proliferated. The control used by long-ago farmers was to burn out selected crop areas. Unfortunately, this destroyed beneficial ladybug larvae along with the aphids.

Local children knew this. So when they saw the agricultural smoke, they instructed "Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home. Your house is on fire. Your children will burn."
In some areas, it's considered bad luck to harm a ladybug. Other areas are replete with romantic ladybug superstitions. For example, an old Scottish rhyme, calling the ladybug "King Calowa," goes "King, King Calowa. Up your wings and fly away! Over land, and over sea. Tell me where my love can be." Whichever way the insect went, a beau would arrive from that same direction.

Ladybugs appear in your garden on their own, as long as there is food. When the food disappears, the ladybugs move on to tastier pastures. Many people buy ladybugs in packages at garden centers. Controversy continues on this, since many experts state that imported ladybugs fly away almost immediately upon being released. Personally, I really object to garden centers keeping ladybugs in those mesh containers long after season ends. The ladybugs are starving, and will be discarded in some trash heap without being released. Not a kind thing, nor an environmental one.

However, if you do purchase packaged ladybugs, the following techniques will help keep your friends close to home. (1) Water the day before, so the ground is moist. Newly arriving ladybugs are thirsty. (2) Mulch before placing your ladybugs in the garden. Ladybugs like mulch as a cool, damp hiding place. (3) Release ladybugs the same day you get them. (4) Let the ladybugs out of the container at sundown. While their natural inclination is to fly immediately upon release, sundown is bedtime. By morning, hopefully they've found shelter, a meal, and calmed down a bit. (6) Place small ladybug groups throughout the garden, rather then dumping them all in one spot. Place these groups about 9 feet apart, near shrubby plant bases. The distance is so your ladybugs don't all compete for the same food. Of course, be gentle. Rough handling of ladybugs, in or out of the container, encourages them to take off. It's all a bit of extra effort, but ladybugs are worth it.

NOTE TO READERS: Thank you all for the suggestions on how to get rid of snails. I am trying chili powder and assorted leftover spices. I think the copper suggestion may have merit, I shall try it. Best, Pat.

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