|How would you take waking up on a cold winter morning to a handful of coccinellids? For Dr. Kieran Lindsey, it’s a wonderful omen. (Photo: Alan Howell © 2013 Star Path Images)|
Old Man Winter finally blew into my town earlier this week. I like sleeping with the window open slightly and he slipped silently past the softly snoring mini-blind sentry, fanning out across the bedroom carpet as a layer of gelid air ready to catch my bare feet off guard as they carelessly kicked back toasty covers and dove overboard to greet the day.
Talk about a rude awakening!
I felt the lurking chill in the knick of time. Knees pulled back, feet hovering just above the floor, I weighed a long to-do list and a wide-awake wire fox terrier, eager to empty his bladder and chase a ball, against the possibility that on this day, at least, the better part of valor might involve a temporary (but hasty) retreat. Not out of cowardice, mind you. No, no…I just needed a little time to regroup and marshal my endothermic resources while I searched for the socks I’d peeled off while snoozing. I figured it shouldn’t take more than an hour or so before I’d be ready to do battle with my frosty intruder.
Mulling over my options, I stared blankly at the bed linens…then suddenly my eyes flew open! I was seeing red, literally, and I felt the room grow instantly warmer. Turns out, spring had snuck in on winter’s coattails in the form of about a dozen cheery round beetles scattered across my brown and turquoise paisley comforter, each wearing a shiny cherry waistcoat strewn with black confetti.
We humans are a terribly fickle lot, aren’t we? Especially when it comes to insects. As a biologist and a not completely reformed tomboy, it’s slightly embarrassing to admit this, but if I’d awakened to find nearly any other kind of beetles on my bed, I wouldn’t have dithered about whether to get up — I would have been in the next room before a thought could snake its way through my synapses. But ladybugs? They’re as welcome as the Tooth Fairy!
It’s a completely arbitrary preference…one shared by many members of my species, but still. I don’t know why people like one kind of basically harmless bug and abhor most of the others. Maybe it’s their round, smiley-face shape, or perhaps it’s the wardrobe. Can you imagine wearing anything less threatening than polka-dots?
Apparently, it’s an almost universally appealing sartorial statement — the 5,000 species of coccinellids, as they’re known to entomologists, are found, and in most cases welcomed, around the globe. Cute can go a long way to win over a hominid, but if you really want to stack the deck in your favor, you should also spend most of your time snacking on a major agricultural pest. During their three- to six-week lifespan, a single ladybug can consume up to 5,000 plant-draining aphids, and suck up to farmers while they’re at it.
But humans aren’t the only threat this world has to offer, and there’s more than luck to that crimson coloring. Red means the same for both VW and biological beetles: STOP! Some coccinellid species can spray a substance that’s venomous to other insects and some mammals. That’ll spoil a predator’s appetite! Or pop a ladybug in your pie-hole (after all, they do look like candy) and you’ll get a mouthful of alkaloid toxins and a bellyache to remember. This kind of learned aversion is called aposematism, and it’s one of several chemical warfare strategies employed by the insect nation against each other and all other comers. Sometimes, I guess, polka-dots are just a ploy.
Ladybugs come in other hues — yellow, orange and pink, to name a few — but the palette is always conspicuous because, for negative reinforcement to work, you need to be easily and immediately recognized by your no-longer naïve predator. Bright colors work like a charm — for the population if not for every individual insect. Sure, ladybugs lose some percent of their brethren to the learning curve, but the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. Mr. Spock said it, so you know it’s true. Trekkie references don’t do it for you? Then how about Lord Tennyson, who eloquently described Mother Nature as:
“So careful of the type she seems, So careless of the single life.”
This is not a one-gender species, of course, but you wouldn’t know it by their handles — ladybugs, ladybirds, lady beetles, lady flies. In several countries they’ve even been granted a kind of exalted status, such as the Netherlands (“lieveheersbeestje” or “dear Lord’s animal”), France (“bête à bon Dieu,” same translation as the Dutch) and Ireland (“bóín Dé,” which means “God’s little cow”).
Metamorphosis is the name of the game among the six-legged set, and ladybugs are no exception. They start life as small, yellow, rice-shaped eggs usually deposited on the underside of leaves. When they hatch…well, I’m sure their parents are very proud, but these are not pretty babies. They don’t take after mom and dad until many awkward molts and a shrimp-like pupa stage have passed. But they do make themselves useful to humans even at this young age by chowing down on aphids, scale (Coccoidea), and mealybugs (Pseudococcidae).
Knowing this, I carried each and every winged ruby from my bedroom to my office and tucked them into the topknot of a 6-foot dracaena plant near the window, out of sight and reach of a trouble-making terrier-boy. I’m not a bug, and there are times when I’m not much of a lady either, but I know a safe harbor when I spy one — and how to stay warm when blue northers, nor’easters, Alberta clippers and other cold winds blow.
I also know that in many cultures the appearance of this appealing little tank of an insect is considered to be good luck. Waking up to ladybugs in January? If there’s a better omen for a great New Year, I can’t imagine what it could be.
Dr. Kieran Lindsey loves looking for wild things in all the wrong places…so she became an urban wildlife biologist. Her quest to entice others to share this passion led to flirtations with (gasp!) the media as a columnist for the Houston Chronicle newspaper, as writer-producer-host of KUNM-FM’s “Wild Things,” as co-producer of an Emmy-winning wildlife documentary and at her Next-Door Nature blog. Lindsey also has way too much fun as the official Animal-Vehicle Biologist for NPR’s “Car Talk,” and she isn’t ashamed to admit it. Read her blog at www.nextdoornature.org. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.