Ladybugs are familiar and beloved fixtures of our gardens, but there’s more to them than cuteness. Take a second look at these backyard insects.
1. LADYBUGS ARE NAMED AFTER THE VIRGIN MARY.
There are both male and female ladybugs, so why do we call them “ladies”? According to Oxford Dictionaries, they’re named after one particular lady: the Virgin Mary. One of the most common European ladybugs is the seven-spot ladybug, and its seven marks reminded people of the Virgin Mary’s seven sorrows. Germans even call these insects Marienkäfers, or Mary’s beetles.
2. THEY AREN’T BUGS.
Ladybugs aren’t bugs—they’re beetles. True bugs belong to the order Hemiptera, and these include familiar insects such as bedbugs and cicadas. Ladybugs, on the other hand, are part of Coleoptera, the beetle order. Many entomologists prefer to call them “lady beetles," or Coccinellids.
3. SOME PEOPLE CALL THEM BIRDS, BISHOPS, OR … COWS.
In parts of England, and for reasons that are unclear, the ladybug is a bishop. Local variants of this name abound, including the amazing bishy bishy barnabee. Nowadays, most people in England use the word ladybird, perhaps because these insects are able fliers.
In several languages, the portly, spotted ladybug is affectionately known as a little cow. For example, a popular Russian name for the ladybug is bozhya korovka, which translates to “God’s little cow.” French people sometimes use the term vache à Dieu, which means “cow of God.” And the English once called it a ladycow before they switched to bishop and ladybird.
4. THEY COME IN A RAINBOW OF COLORS.
You’ve probably seen red ladybugs with black spots—but members of the ladybug family come in a wide range of hues, from ashy gray to dull brown to metallic blue. Their patterns vary, too; some have stripes, some have squiggles, and some have no pattern at all. Among the spotted ladybugs, the number of spots varies. The twice-stabbed ladybug is black with just two bright red dots. On the other hand, the yellow twenty-two spot ladybug has, well, 22 of them.
5. THOSE COLORS ARE WARNING SIGNS.
If you’re an animal, one way to avoid being eaten is to be toxic—or just plain foul-tasting. Many animals produce chemicals that make them taste gross, and they warn predators about their yuckiness with blazing bright colors—sort of like a stop sign or yellow caution tape.
Striped skunks, for example, pack a powerful stinky spray, and their black and white pattern serves as a warning sign. Highly venomous coral snakes wear vibrant red, black, and yellow stripes. Similarly, ladybug species with bright colors are walking billboards that say, “Don’t eat me. I’ll make you sick.” And that’s because …
6. LADYBUGS DEFEND THEMSELVES WITH TOXIC CHEMICALS.
Okay, don’t panic. Ladybugs won’t harm you unless you eat many pounds of them (or in the rare case that you’re allergic to them). But a lot of ladybugs produce toxins that make them distasteful to birds and other would-be predators. These noxious substances are linked to a ladybug’s color; the brighter the ladybug, the stronger the toxins.
7. THEY LAY EXTRA EGGS AS A SNACK FOR THEIR BABIES.
Ladybug moms lay clusters of eggs on a plant (here’s a video of egg laying in action). But not all of those eggs are destined to hatch. Some of them lack embryos. They’re a tasty gift from the mother ladybug; the newly hatched babies will gobble them up.
8. BABY LADYBUGS LOOK LIKE ALLIGATORS.
When you think “baby ladybugs,” you might imagine that they look like adult ladybugs—but smaller. Cute, right? But this is what hatches out of those ladybug eggs. It’s a long, spiny larva that looks a little like an alligator.
Though ladybug larvae may be intimidating, they’re not harmful to humans. They crawl around, feeding and growing, until they’re ready to turn into something even weirder …
9. LADYBUG PUPAE LOOK LIKE ALIENS.
The next step in a ladybug’s life cycle is to find a nice spot on a piece of vegetation, settle down, and become an alien-looking pupa. Protected by a hard covering, the ladybug then makes an incredible transformation from larva to adult, breaking down old body parts and creating new ones. And once the adult is ready to emerge, it bursts out of its old skin.
10. ADULT LADYBUGS FLY WITH HIDDEN WINGS.
Ladybugs don’t look very aerodynamic. Their colorful domed backs are made of modified wings that are basically hardened armor. Flapping them would get a ladybug nowhere fast. So how do these insects fly?
When a ladybug takes off, it lifts up those protective covers. Underneath is another pair of wings that are slender and perfect for flight. Normally folded for easy storage, they unfold for takeoff.
11. LADYBUGS SURVIVE THE WINTER AS ADULTS.
We associate adult ladybugs with bright summer days—but they’re around even in the depths of winter. They enter a state of rest and cuddle together in groups, often in logs or under leaves.
One species, the harlequin ladybug, keeps toasty by entering our homes. These insects will gather in huge numbers and settle into dark crevices in a house. On unseasonably warm days, they wake up and blunder around the room. Fortunately, these insects don’t eat our food or chew on our furnishings. But they do squirt out a noxious defensive liquid that can stain light surfaces. Also, they can sometimes cause allergic reactions.
12. THEY’RE VORACIOUS PREDATORS—MOSTLY.
Ladybugs are universally beloved, and one reason is that they’re a natural (and adorable) form of pest control. They eat plant pests such as aphids, scale bugs, and mealybugs, and they have huge appetites: a single ladybug can eat 5000 aphids across its lifetime.
But many ladybugs supplement their diets with pollen and other plant foods. Some eat vegetation and fungi exclusively. The orange ladybug, for example, munches on mildew. For some, garden plants are on the menu: the Mexican bean beetle dines on beans, and the squash beetle eats squash, cantaloupe, and pumpkin.
13. WE’RE SPREADING LADYBUG SPECIES AROUND THE WORLD.
Some ladybug species have turned up in parts of the world where they weren’t previously found. They’ve spread in a couple of ways: in some cases, people brought over the insects to combat agricultural pests, and in other cases, the bugs hitchhiked on imported goods.
The results haven’t always been beneficial. One invader, the harlequin ladybug, is native to East Asia but has spread to parts of Europe and North America. It pushes out native species, infects them with a deadly fungal parasite, and even eats them.
14. THEY CAN BE BAD FOR YOUR WINE.
Thanks to harlequin ladybugs, winemakers face a new and bizarre problem: ladybug taint.
Many vineyards are situated near fields of other crops such as soybeans. Ladybugs eagerly devour the aphids that infest those crops, but once the crops are harvested, the insects need a new place to hang out. Some of them wander over to the vineyards and crawl around on the grapes.
But then comes the grape harvest. The insects are accidentally scooped up with bunches of grapes—and when ladybugs are frightened, they squirt out a smelly defensive fluid. The resulting wine has a particular stinky flavor that has been likened to peanuts or asparagus. Cheers!