sleepy ladybugs

I bought a new Canon PowerShot SX40 HS digital camera this year to improve the photos on my blog. I love the camera’s ease of use and most of the time, the pictures turn out great; however, the all-purpose zoom lens (35x IS) doesn’t allow me to take close-up shots. The reason I mention this is that this post is about ladybugs, a tiny insect with a body length of only 0.08 to 0.4 inches (2 to 10 millimeters).

My lens, as you can see in the second picture is clearly not up to the job, but here’s a high-resolution picture from the website:

Anyway, yesterday, I noticed a couple of ladybugs on our back porch, soaking up the sun. How cute, I thought. Then, I saw a couple more, then a few more, and soon counted three dozen or so.

Like many other insects (i.e., the dratted stink bugs), they are looking for a place to spend the winter. They gather in large numbers for warmth and hide under leaves, tarps, or buildings, and will come into your house if they can find a way to get in.

Inside your house, they are actually quite harmless. They don’t bore or chew holes or lay eggs, but if you want rid of them, one way to trap them is fill a couple of Dixie cups or other small containers one-third full of grape jelly and set them on the window sill. Over a span of a few days, this will trap a large number of the invaders, which can then be released away from the house. You can also use a “shop vac” with a clean bag or a piece of cloth in the bottom to collect them and then release them outside. Because our homes are very dry in winter from the heat, most of the ladybug guests will more than likely die from dehydration anyway.

Most gardeners know that ladybugs are beneficial insects, capable of consuming up to 50 to 60 aphids per day, as well as a variety of other insects and larvae including scales, whiteflies, thrips, mealy bugs, leaf hoppers, and mites. They also eat the eggs of some insects such as moth eggs and certain ladybugs eat pollen and mildew. Many people purchase ladybugs in the spring and release them in their garden to help control destructive pests. If you decide to try this, make sure there’s ample food (pest insects and pollen) and water in the garden, or they will fly away once the food is exhausted. An excellent website, both for attracting ladybugs and for keeping them in your garden throughout the growing season, is:

There are beneficial insects and pest insects. Good insects are Mother Nature’s way of controlling nature’s pests. Learning which insects are good and which are bad will save you time and money in the garden, and help create a natural environment good for plants and people.

here’s “looking” at you

When I first saw this curious insect, I couldn’t help but notice its huge eyes. But upon closer inspection, I saw that they are not really eyes at all. They are “false eyes,” likely developed to fool or scare off predators. Nearly two inches long and found across the eastern U.S., as far west as Texas, this gray, black, and white insect is one of the largest members of the click beetle family.

We had click beetles when we were living in Maryland, but this is the first time I’ve seen one with huge fake eyespots. Known as the eyed click beetle (Alaus oculatus), we found the specimen pictured below at the edge of our woods in Virginia. The insect’s true eyes are much smaller and located at the base of its saw-toothed antennae.

If you take the time to learn about them, nature’s creatures are all amazing and the click beetle is no exception. Despite their differences in appearance, all click beetles have a startling behavior that demonstrates how they got their name. When confronted by a predator, click beetles flip over onto their backs, pull their legs and antennae in close to their body, and remain very still, “playing possum” until the predator loses interest. If further threatened, they arch their back and straighten out quickly with a snapping motion, resulting in an audible click, and launch themselves several inches into the air. This burst of movement, from the predator’s perspective, seems to make the beetle suddenly disappear.

In nature, there’s a reason for everything and that reason has to do with survival. For instance, the sometimes dramatic difference in coloring between a male and female bird of the same species has to do with increasing the survival chances of the species. In the case of cardinals, the bold coloring of the male catches the female’s eye and since studies show that females seem to prefer bright red males, the rich red color seems to signal to her that he will be a good provider for their offspring. The drab coloring of the female, on the other hand, helps her stay hidden while sitting on the nest and not draw the attention of predators.

So the eyespots of the click beetle are related to the specie’s survival, but why, then, did the click beetles we saw in Maryland not evolve to develop these eyespots, and, conversely, why did the click beetles with giant eyespots develop them in the first place? I’m certainly not qualified to answer this question. But what I do know is that since not all click beetles evolved in this way, it suggests a form of divergent evolution; that is, an ancestral species “splits off” at some point, and the two divergent but closely related species adopt different survival strategies, with the exception of the click.

The theory behind the fake eye spots is that if a predator, say a bird, is tracking the beetle by following the very obvious eyespots, once the beetle senses the predator and flips onto its back and remains still, it might cause the bird that was focusing on the eyespots to think the beetle is dead or has vanished. If this ploy fails, the beetle suddenly vaults into the air, further confusing the bird, and perhaps giving it just enough time to crawl away and hide.

I found this specimen in the woods. In this setting, the beetle’s eyespots actually acted as camouflage. If I wasn’t picking up broken limbs, I probably would never have seen this beetle in the first place, so perfectly did it blend with the twigs, leaves, acorns, and stones on the forest floor.

I’ve often wished that I had a biologist to follow me around when I’m outside so I could pose these types of questions to someone with more knowledge about such things. Instead, if I can’t find the answer through research, I dwell on it until another question about something entirely different pops into the forefront of my brain. The unanswered questions languish in my thoughts, reminding me how complex nature is. For me, looking for an answer only seems to lead to another question. Maybe when we realize how much we don’t know about nature, the smarter we’re actually becoming! If that’s true, I’m well on my way to genius.

Come forth into the light of things, Let Nature be your teacher. William Wordsworth