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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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Animals
How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library
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Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Honey Bees Can Understand the Concept of Zero
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The concept of zero—less than one, nothing, nada—is deceptively complex. The first placeholder zero dates back to around 300 BCE, and the notion didn’t make its way to Western Europe until the 12th century. It takes children until preschool to wrap their brains around the concept. But scientists in Australia recently discovered a new animal capable of understanding zero: the honey bee. According to Vox, a new study finds that the insects can be taught the concept of nothing.

A few other animals can understand zero, according to current research. Dolphins, parrots, and monkeys can all understand the difference between something and nothing, but honey bees are the first insects proven to be able to do it.

The new study, published in the journal Science, finds that honey bees can rank quantities based on “greater than” and “less than,” and can understand that nothing is less than one.

Left: A photo of a bee choosing between images with black dots on them. Right: an illustration of a bee choosing the image with fewer dots
© Scarlett Howard & Aurore Avarguès-Weber

The researchers trained bees to identify images in the lab that showed the fewest number of elements (in this case, dots). If they chose the image with the fewest circles from a set, they received sweetened water, whereas if they chose another image, they received bitter quinine.

Once the insects got that concept down, the researchers introduced another challenge: The bees had to choose between a blank image and one with dots on it. More than 60 percent of the time, the insects were successfully able to extrapolate that if they needed to choose the fewest dots between an image with a few dots and an image with no dots at all, no dots was the correct answer. They could grasp the concept that nothing can still be a numerical quantity.

It’s not entirely surprising that bees are capable of such feats of intelligence. We already know that they can count, teach each other skills, communicate via the “waggle dance,” and think abstractly. This is just more evidence that bees are strikingly intelligent creatures, despite the fact that their insect brains look nothing like our own.

Considering how far apart bees and primates are on the evolutionary tree, and how different their brains are from ours—they have fewer than 1 million neurons, while we have about 86 billion—this finding raises a lot of new questions about the neural basis of understanding numbers, and will no doubt lead to further research on how the brain processes concepts like zero.

[h/t Vox]

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