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14 Darling Facts About Ladybugs

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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.

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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.

By entomart via Wikimedia

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. 

And some ladybugs just like to make things complicated. The harlequin ladybug can be yellow, red, black, and almost any combination thereof, and it has any number of spots, from zero to 22. 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Why Your iPhone Doesn't Always Show You the 'Decline Call' Button
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When you get an incoming call to your iPhone, the options that light up your screen aren't always the same. Sometimes you have the option to decline a call, and sometimes you only see a slider that allows you to answer, without an option to send the caller straight to voicemail. Why the difference?

A while back, Business Insider tracked down the answer to this conundrum of modern communication, and the answer turns out to be fairly simple.

If you get a call while your phone is locked, you’ll see the "slide to answer" button. In order to decline the call, you have to double-tap the power button on the top of the phone.

If your phone is unlocked, however, the screen that appears during an incoming call is different. You’ll see the two buttons, "accept" or "decline."

Either way, you get the options to set a reminder to call that person back or to immediately send them a text message. ("Dad, stop calling me at work, it’s 9 a.m.!")

[h/t Business Insider]

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