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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.

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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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Big Questions
Should You Keep Your Pets Indoors During the Solar Eclipse?
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By now, you probably know what you’ll be doing on August 21, when a total solar eclipse makes its way across the continental United States. You’ve had your safety glasses ready since January (and have confirmed that they’ll actually protect your retinas), you’ve picked out the perfect vantage point in your area for the best view, and you’ve memorized Nikon’s tips for how to take pictures of this rare celestial phenomenon. Still, it feels like you’re forgetting something … and it’s probably the thing that's been right under your nose, and sitting on your lap, the whole time: your pets.

Even if you’ve never witnessed a solar eclipse, you undoubtedly know that you’re never supposed to look directly at the sun during one. But what about your four-legged family members? Shouldn’t Fido be fitted with a pair of eclipse glasses before he heads out for his daily walk? Could Princess Kitty be in danger of having her peepers singed if she’s lounging on her favorite windowsill? While, like humans, looking directly at the sun during a solar eclipse does pose the potential of doing harm to a pet’s eyes, it’s unlikely that the thought would even occur to the little ball of fluff.

“It’s no different than any other day,” Angela Speck, co-chair of the AAS National Solar Eclipse Task Force, explained during a NASA briefing in June. “On a normal day, your pets don’t try to look at the sun and therefore don’t damage their eyes, so on this day they’re not going to do it either. It is not a concern, letting them outside. All that’s happened is we’ve blocked out the sun, it’s not more dangerous. So I think that people who have pets want to think about that. I’m not going to worry about my cat.”

Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, a veterinarian, author, and founder of pawcurious, echoed Speck’s statement, but allowed that there’s no such thing as being too cautious. “It’s hard for me to criticize such a well-meaning warning, because there’s really no harm in following the advice to keep pets inside during the eclipse,” Vogelsang told Snopes. “It’s better to be too cautious than not cautious enough. But in the interest of offering a realistic risk assessment, the likelihood of a pet ruining their eyes the same way a human would during an eclipse is much lower—not because the damage would be any less were they to stare at the sun, but because, from a behavior standpoint, dogs and cats just don’t have any interest in doing so. We tend to extrapolate a lot of things from people to pets that just doesn’t bear out, and this is one of them.

“I’ve seen lots of warnings from the astronomy community and the human medical community about the theoretical dangers of pets and eclipses, but I’m not sure if any of them really know animal behavior all that well," Vogelsang continued. "It’s not like there’s a big outcry from the wildlife community to go chase down coyotes and hawks and bears and give them goggles either. While we in the veterinary community absolutely appreciate people being concerned about their pets’ wellbeing, this is a non-issue for us.”

The bigger issue, according to several experts, would be with pets who are already sensitive to Mother Nature. "If you have the sort of pet that's normally sensitive to shifts in the weather, they might be disturbed by just the whole vibe because the temperature will drop and the sky will get dark,” Melanie Monteiro, a pet safety expert and author of The Safe-Dog Handbook: A Complete Guide to Protecting Your Pooch, Indoors and Out, told TODAY.

“If [your pets] have learned some association with it getting darker, they will show that behavior or at a minimum they get confused because the timeframe does not correspond,” Dr. Carlo Siracusa of Penn Vet Hospital told CBS Philly. “You might put the blinds down, but not exactly when the dark is coming but when it is still light.” 

While Monteiro again reasserts that, "Dogs and cats don't normally look up into the sun, so you don't need to get any special eye protection for your pets,” she says that it’s never a bad idea to take some extra precautions. So if you’re headed out to an eclipse viewing party, why not do your pets a favor and leave them at home. They won’t even know what they’re missing.

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Big Questions
Why Can't Dogs Eat Chocolate?
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Even if you don’t have a dog, you probably know that they can’t eat chocolate; it’s one of the most well-known toxic substances for canines (and felines, for that matter). But just what is it about chocolate that is so toxic to dogs? Why can't dogs eat chocolate when we eat it all the time without incident?

It comes down to theobromine, a chemical in chocolate that humans can metabolize easily, but dogs cannot. “They just can’t break it down as fast as humans and so therefore, when they consume it, it can cause illness,” Mike Topper, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, tells Mental Floss.

The toxic effects of this slow metabolization can range from a mild upset stomach to seizures, heart failure, and even death. If your dog does eat chocolate, they may get thirsty, have diarrhea, and become hyperactive and shaky. If things get really bad, that hyperactivity could turn into seizures, and they could develop an arrhythmia and have a heart attack.

While cats are even more sensitive to theobromine, they’re less likely to eat chocolate in the first place. They’re much more picky eaters, and some research has found that they can’t taste sweetness. Dogs, on the other hand, are much more likely to sit at your feet with those big, mournful eyes begging for a taste of whatever you're eating, including chocolate. (They've also been known to just swipe it off the counter when you’re not looking.)

If your dog gets a hold of your favorite candy bar, it’s best to get them to the vet within two hours. The theobromine is metabolized slowly, “therefore, if we can get it out of the stomach there will be less there to metabolize,” Topper says. Your vet might be able to induce vomiting and give your dog activated charcoal to block the absorption of the theobromine. Intravenous fluids can also help flush it out of your dog’s system before it becomes lethal.

The toxicity varies based on what kind of chocolate it is (milk chocolate has a lower dose of theobromine than dark chocolate, and baking chocolate has an especially concentrated dose), the size of your dog, and whether or not the dog has preexisting health problems, like kidney or heart issues. While any dog is going to get sick, a small, old, or unhealthy dog won't be able to handle the toxic effects as well as a large, young, healthy dog could. “A Great Dane who eats two Hershey’s kisses may not have the same [reaction] that a miniature Chihuahua that eats four Hershey’s kisses has,” Topper explains. The former might only get diarrhea, while the latter probably needs veterinary attention.

Even if you have a big dog, you shouldn’t just play it by ear, though. PetMD has a handy calculator to see just what risk levels your dog faces if he or she eats chocolate, based on the dog’s size and the amount eaten. But if your dog has already ingested chocolate, petMD shouldn’t be your go-to source. Call your vet's office, where they are already familiar with your dog’s size, age, and condition. They can give you the best advice on how toxic the dose might be and how urgent the situation is.

So if your dog eats chocolate, you’re better off paying a few hundred dollars at the vet to make your dog puke than waiting until it’s too late.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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