Old Man Winter finally blew into my town earlier this week. I like sleeping with the window open slightly and he slipped silently past the softly snoring mini-blind sentry, fanning out across the bedroom carpet as a layer of gelid air ready to catch my bare feet off guard as they carelessly kicked back toasty covers and dove overboard to greet the day.
Talk about a rude awakening!
I felt the lurking chill in the knick of time. Knees pulled back, feet hovering just above the floor, I weighed a long to-do list and a wide-awake wire fox terrier, eager to empty his bladder and chase a ball, against the possibility that on this day, at least, the better part of valor might involve a temporary (but hasty) retreat. Not out of cowardice, mind you. No, no… I just needed a little time to regroup and marshal my endothermic resources while I searched for the socks I’d peeled off while snoozing. I figured it shouldn’t take more than an hour or so before I’d be ready to do battle with my frosty intruder.
Mulling over my options, I stared blankly at the bed linens… then suddenly my eyes flew open! I was seeing red, literally, and I felt the room grow instantly warmer. Turns out, Spring had snuck in on Winter’s coattails in the form of about a dozen cheery round beetles scattered across my brown and turquoise paisley comforter, each wearing a shiny cherry waistcoat strewn with black confetti.
We humans are a terribly fickle lot, aren’t we? Especially when it comes to insects. As a biologist and not completely reformed tomboy, it’s slightly embarrassing to admit this, but if I’d awakened to find nearly any other kind of beetles on my bed, I wouldn’t have dithered about whether to get up—I would have been in the next room before a thought could snake its way through my synapses. But ladybugs? They’re as welcome as the Tooth Fairy!
It’s a completely arbitrary preference… one shared by many members of my species, but still. I don’t know why people like one kind of basically harmless bug and abhor most of the others. Maybe it’s their round, smiley-face shape, or perhaps it’s the wardrobe. Can you imagine wearing anything less threatening than polka-dots?
Apparently, it’s an almost universally appealing sartorial statement—the 5,000 species of coccinellids, as they’re known to entomologists, are found, and in most cases welcomed, around the globe. Cute can go a long way to win over a hominid, but if you really want to stack the deck in your favor, you should also spend most of your time snacking on a major agricultural pest. During their 3-6 week lifespan, a single ladybug can consume up to 5,000 plant-draining aphids, and suck up to farmers while they’re at it.
But humans aren’t the only threat this world has to offer, and there’s more than luck to that crimson coloring. Red means the same for both VW and biological beetles: STOP! Some coccinellid species can spray a substance that’s venomous to other insects and some mammals. That’ll spoil a predator’s appetite! Or pop a ladybug in your pie-hole (after all, they do look like candy) and you’ll get a mouthful of alkaloid toxins and a bellyache to remember. This kind of learned aversion is called aposematism, and it’s one of several chemical warfare strategies employed by the insect nation against each other and all other comers. Sometimes, I guess, polka-dots are just a ploy.
Ladybugs come in other hues—yellow, orange, and pink, to name a few—but the palette is always conspicuous because, for negative reinforcement to work, you need to be easily and immediately recognized by your no-longer naïve predator. Bright colors work like a charm—for the population if not for every individual insect. Sure, ladybugs lose some percent of their brethren to the learning curve, but the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. Mr. Spock said it, so you know it’s true. Trekkie references don’t do it for you? Then how about Lord Tennyson, who eloquently described Mother Nature as:
So careful of the type she seems, So careless of the single life
This is not a one gender species, of course, but you wouldn’t know it by their handles—ladybugs, ladybirds, lady beetles, lady flies. In several countries they’ve even been granted a kind of exalted status, such as the Netherlands (“lieveheersbeestje” or “dear Lord’s animal”), France (“bête à bon Dieu,” same translation as the Dutch), and Ireland (“bóín Dé,” which means “God’s little cow”).
Metamorphosis is the name of the game among the six-legged set, and ladybugs are no exception. They start life as small, yellow, rice-shaped eggs usually deposited on the underside of leaves. When they hatch… well, I’m sure their parents are very proud, but these are not pretty babies. They don’t take after mom and dad until many awkward molts and a shrimp-like pupa stage have passed. But they do make themselves useful to humans even at this young age by chowing down on aphids, scale (Coccoidea), and mealybugs (Pseudococcidae).
Knowing this, I carried each and every winged ruby from my bedroom to my office and tucked them into the topknot of a 6’ dracaena plant near the window, out of sight and reach of a trouble-making terrier-boy. I’m not a bug, and there are times when I’m not much of a lady either, but I know a safe harbor when I spy one—and how to stay warm when Blue Northers, Nor’easters, Alberta Clippers, and other cold winds blow.
I also know that in many cultures the appearance of this appealing little tank of an insect is considered to be good luck. Waking up to ladybugs in January? If there’s a better omen for a great New Year, I can’t imagine what it could be.
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© 2012 Next-Door Nature—no reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work; all you have to do is ask). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license: justmakeit (telephone cord); The Real Estreya (multicolors);Kim Flemng (eggs); Jack Wolf (larvae); Gilles San Martin (pupa); and Juergen Mangelsdorf (fingertip).
Walking through a nearby park at dusk the other night, I saw a single spark. Then another. Soon there were too many to count, hovering in the airspace between my chin and my ankles, lighting my way past the pond, the gazebo, and the tennis courts.
Who needs a time machine when you have memory to transport you to another place, another you? Those sparks must have kindled a few synapses, because suddenly I’m six-years-old again, running with my best friend Cindi through freshly mown grass that envelopes us in the signature scent of a suburban summer while staining the soles of our feet DayGlo green. Wild with excitement at being allowed to stay outside after dark, we’re relentless, ruthless, giggling predators intent on imprisoning lightning bugs in an empty Miracle Whip® jar.
If you live in the eastern half of the U.S., tell your neighbor or coworker you watched fireflies last night and see happens. I’ll bet you, dollars to donuts, their faces will soften and glow as if bathed in the bioluminescence of an impromptu nightlight. It’s Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past all over again, but with Coleoptera instead of cookies.
That’s right, they’re not flies and not technically bugs either. They’re beetles, a group that doesn’t usually garner much affection from the human race. Let’s face it—we like our non-human animals to have fur or feathers and large liquid simple eyes. If you can make your butt blink on warm summer evenings, however, folks are willing to see you in a new light.
Special organs in the abdomen convert oxygen and a compound called luciferin into a yellow or chartreuse glow. They’re quite good at this, by the way. Common incandescent light bulbs convert only 10% of an energy supply into light; the other 90% is emitted as heat. Fluorescent bulbs transform 90% of the energy into light but fall short of the nearly 100% efficiency of a firefly’s “cold” light.
As kids, we learn that fireflies flash to find a mate. What you may not know is that each species—and there are many different species in North America alone—has it’s own unique light show. This helps everyone pair up correctly. Males fly around broadcasting a kind of visual Morse code to the females hanging out in or near the grass. When a female spots a familiar pattern she flashes a response, then they signal back and forth until the male finds her.
Some flash patterns warn away predators who’ve come to associate an unpleasant meal with a specific blink beat. This doesn’t work with every predator, juvenile Homo sapiens being one obvious example. Often, though, the biggest threat comes from a relative—some species are able to mimic the unique display pattern of their kin to trick the males and… well, use your imagination. Or, better yet, let Isabella Rossellini explain it to you.
Returning from a reverie of 1965 to present day, I had a vague sense of something missing. Then it hit me—I didn’t see a single child with a jar in pursuit of bobbing, weaving cold-light moonbeams! I found this disturbing. Disheartening.
My own lifelong fascination with the natural world wasn’t sparked by National Geographic Specials about exotic creatures living halfway around the world (although, in time, those programs came to have an impact as well). There’s no doubt in my mind that my love of all things wild started as a toddler, sitting in my mom’s lap in the backyard watching cardinals grow bold with curiosity as she whistled their calls—Birdy-birdy-birdy! Cheer-cheer-cheer!—back to them. It blossomed because, as a grade-schooler, I was allowed to raise tadpoles in galvanized buckets, catch crawdads in plastic cups, tie thread-leashes to the legs of June bugs, and run after lightning bugs with mayonnaise jars.
Maybe, if I’d been walking through a subdivision, I’d have seen evidence that the spark that caught fire in me all those years ago still has a chance to ignite wonder in the up-and-coming generation. Maybe there are thousands of children darting across thousands of lawns after millions of flashing yellow lights all across the U.S. I hope so.
But can we really afford to leave it to chance? I don’t think so. So do me a favor, would you? Find a kid you know. Pull an empty jar down from a cabinet shelf and poke some holes in the lid. Then go outside after dinner tonight, catch some fireflies, and light a spark.