Ladybugs

The ladybug.

Adorable, right? The cheery, apple-red carapace garnished with but a few, large black dots; as if a tiny pixie had painted them on, and the paintbrush tip was just too big to fit more than a few dots on. This, combined with its bumbling walk along the flowers, and its round, squat body evokes imagery of a kindred Russian grandmother, tending her garden in her brightly-colored babushka. If you are fortunate enough to get one to crawl on your hand or finger, its tiny legs tickle your skin and it eventually pops open its carapace (made of modified wings called “elytra”), and silently takes off as an itty-bitty summertime jewel of cuteness and sunshine and sparkles (and it’s supposed to be good luck! awww). Definitely adorable. Right?

Wrong.

Ladybugs (also known as “ladybirds” outside of North America, as well as “ladyclocks”, “lady cows”, and “Xena flys”) are voracious predators in their raised-bed ecosystem. Ladybugs, from the cradle to the grave, feed upon many different types of insects (many of them important crop pests, so yay), but most commonly on things like aphids. Ladybugs are built to seek-and-destroy aphids. Imagine a giant, armored tank, bearing down on you at stupid speeds, and you’re a squishy, slow, small, green thing…and you have an idea of what it’s like to be an aphid caught in the crosshairs of a hungry ladybug. Did I mention the tank’s front is equipped with more razor-sharp blades than an industrial agricultural combine? That cute little ladybug face hides a generous amount of sharp, curved mandibles that are designed by natural selection to pop an aphid’s body like a Screamin’ Green Apple-flavored Fruit Gusher. A single, adult ladybug can consume more than 1000 aphids in one day during the growing season. Seeing as how ladybugs can live up to about two years, that comes to roughly 360,000 aphid lives in the lifetime of a single ladybug, which is more than the metro population of the city I live in, Eugene, Oregon.

“Genocide? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Their squeal-inducing adorable coloration has particularly dark origins. Ladybugs are still quite small, and despite their armor, are no match for even more badass predators like birds and larger insects. So, through the wonderful ingenuity of evolution, ladybugs and their relatives have developed a potent deterrent from being gobbled up, and their bright colors serve as a warning and reminder of this capacity. Mechanical stimulation, like from a predator attack (or, you know, a human finger) releases a reflexive outpouring of alkaloid toxins from every joint and crevice in its exoskeleton. The toxins are incredibly bitter tasting, and the “goal” is that the ladybug is spat out so it can continue its merry life of slaughtering ‘lesser’ insects. Some can apparently even spray this shit when threatened, poisoning small mammals. So don’t let your hamster play in the garden. It’s thought that just being around these things can be hazardous, as in large enough numbers, they’ve been shown to aggravate allergies and asthma in humans. Ladybugs are not only homicidal maniacs, they also are walking dirty bombs.

But, you say, that cute wittle bug sort of negates all the inevitable aphid death and venomous ooze. With a face like that, who couldn’t look the other way?

Fucking Christ! It looks like something that would wrap around your face, lay its eggs in your stomach, and produce chest-bursting progeny that would terrorize Ripley for four, increasingly shitty films.

You see, in their childhood, ladybugs are essentially nightmarish hell-creatures that would battle, and eviscerate, Godzilla were they not so diminuitive. They look like this for the first two weeks or so out of the egg, shedding their skin (in a process called “molting” or “ecdysis”) four times, growing larger and more terrifying each time. They then pupate, and emerge as an adult, and only a few days later they become sexually mature…and thus have the ability to produce a dozen more killing machines.

So, feel free to admire the ladybug for its beauty and benign appearance. But the next time one drifts by on a warm summer breeze, and daintily lands on your arm, keep in mind those tickly feet are splattered with the blood of innocents and home-brewed drain cleaner.

© Jacob Buehler and “Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology”, 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jacob Buehler and “Shit You Didn’t Know About Biology” with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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3 thoughts on “Ladybugs

  1. Pingback: Venomous and Underrated: Hymenopteran Horrors | Shit You Didn't Know About Biology

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