The first thing you notice about a ladybug is probably its elytra, or hardened forewings. If the ''lady'' has spots, they are here. Its real flying wings are under the elytra, which lift up before takeoff. Ladybugs have mouths designed for biting: Some eat aphids - soft-bodied insects that suck the juice from plants - and other insects; but others are ''herbivorous,'' which means they eat only vegetable matter. Ladybugs have six legs. They have antennae. And it takes 135,000 ladybugs to fill a gallon container.
In winter, ladybugs ''hibernate'' or go to sleep. They can even be frozen in blocks of ice and survive. Their life span is about a year. The females lay eggs, which hatch into larvae. The larvae become pupae, out of which the adult ladybugs emerge, pale at first, then gradually they change to their recognizable color and markings.
One reason people like ladybugs is that they feed on the aphids that spoil flowers, vegetables, and fruit trees.
As long ago as 1888, one kind of ladybug was deliberately introduced from Australia into California to control a pest, the cottony cushion scale insect, which threatened the citrus industry.
Ladybugs sometimes have ''good years'' when they breed so fast they run out of their usual food. Then they eat other things. This year in Britain, they have occasionally taken a nip at human flesh. But expert Michael E.N. Majerus, in his book ''Ladybirds,'' writes that they don't like the way we taste. We are ''rejected prey.'' So we can go on loving them after all....