Ladybug, ladybug, where have you gone?

Because many native ladybugs have disappeared, a citizen-scientist project aims to find as many as possible.

Photos by Kevin Rivoli/AP
Volunteers: Jaya Walsh and her son Gaelen look for ladybugs as part of the Lost Ladybug Project near Ithica, N.Y.

 The nine-spotted ladybug was considered so common, charismatic, and crop-friendly that it was adopted as New York’s official state insect in 1989. As it turns out, the species may have disappeared from the state nearly two decades before that.

Recent surveys in New York and the Northeast have found none of the once-ubiquitous beetles entomologists call Coccinella novemnotata — or C-9, for short.

The decline of C-9 and some other native ladybugs happened so quickly and precipitously that scientists have launched a nationwide project to help them understand why some ladybug species have all but vanished while others have greatly increased their numbers and range.

“We don’t know why this happened, what impact it will have on controlling pests, or how we can prevent more native species from becoming so rare,” said John Losey, a Cornell University entomologist who leads the Lost Ladybug Project.

Funded by a $2 million National Science Foundation grant, the project is recruiting citizen scientists, particularly children, to search for C-9 and other ladybug species and send photos of them to Cornell for identification and inclusion in a database.

The scientific end of our project is, there are so many ladybugs, so many places to look for them and not very many entomologists, so we really need help building a database and mapping out where these beetles are,” said Leslie Allee, a Cornell research associate.

“The other objective of our project is educational,” Allee said. “The goal is to generate excitement about natural science and getting outdoors; demystifying science and getting kids comfortable with the process of doing scientific inquiries.”

While the project welcomes people of all ages and backgrounds, outreach efforts are targeted especially to 5-to-11-year-olds from native American, rural, farming, migrant, or low-income communities, Allee said.

“We know that a single positive experience at this age can greatly enhance the potential that a child will maintain a lifelong interest in science and the diversity of life,” Allee said.

There are about 5,000 species of ladybugs, also known as ladybird beetles, with about 450 species in the United States, Losey said.

Better understanding of ladybug populations, which are highly sensitive to environmental conditions, would lead to better crop management and conservation of other native species as well, he said.

The ecological value of ladybugs is well known. They are common predators of garden and agricultural pests such as aphids and scales, and their presence serves as an indicator of ecological health.

Their pretty color — red or orange with black spots — and overall cuteness make them a popular cultural icon, ranking right up there with butterflies and fireflies.

Among the several dozen species of ladybugs in New York state, C-9 was assumed to be the most common in the Northeast when it was designated the state insect in 1989. It also ranged across the United States and southern Canada.

But recent surveys have found none in the Northeast since 1992, and only a few in the Midwest and West, Losey said. In fact, the last documented collection in New York was in 1970.

Extinction of a species is usually linked to habitat loss or the invasion of foreign competitors or predators. In the case of C-9, Losey said it likely succumbed to a combination of those factors.

The ladybug most likely to be seen in New York state is the multicolored Asian ladybug, Losey said. It varies in number of spots and ranges in color from yellow-orange to deep crimson. It was introduced by the US Department of Agriculture to help fight foreign pests on crops.

An unforeseen consequence of the Asian ladybug’s importation is that the insect has a habit of swarming on — and in — homes, making it somewhat of a nuisance.

One theory on the disappearance of C-9 and other native ladybugs is that introduced species like the Asian ladybug have excluded them from their favored habitat.

Another idea is that the number of parasitic wasps that prey upon ladybugs increased with the introduction of alien ladybugs. Changes in cropping patterns and loss of agricultural land also may have played a prominent role.

During the pilot phase of the Lost Ladybug Project, Jilene and Jonathan Penhale, ages 11 and 10, found a nine-spotted ladybug near their home in Arlington, Va., in October 2006. It was the first C-9 documented in the eastern U.S. in 14 years.

For more information, check out the website of the Lost Ladybug Project.

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