Losing Ladybugs

(Note: this post has been revised to clarify that the convergent lady beetle is native in North America – though it is being moved around as a pest control agent, including into parts of South America, where it isn’t native.)

I saw two native ladybugs this week at our Platte River Prairies, which shouldn’t be as notable as it is. Unfortunately, over the last 20 years, native ladybug populations have steeply declined – especially among some species, which are almost never seen anymore in many places. During the same time, non-native ladybugs (lady beetles) have dramatically increased in abundance. As a result, the vast majority of lady bugs I see are non-native (particularly the 7-spotted and Asian lady beetles). Finding a native species is a cause for celebration.

This little beauty I found at the Platte River Prairies this week is Hippodamia parenthesis – the Parenthesis Lady Beetle. It is a native species here and smaller than the three big non-native ladybugs.
This was taken with my phone and cropped liberally. It’s not a great photo, but I’m pretty sure it is Brachiacantha ursina – the Ursine Spurleg Lady Beetle. Ladybugs come in a fairly wide range of sizes and color patterns. If you’re only looking for red/orange bugs with a few black spots, you’re likely overlooking a lot of others (especially the native species).

Frequent readers of this blog will know that competition from honey bees (non-native species) has contributed to the decline of native bees in North America. There are many other factors, though, linked to those bee declines and it’s hard to know exactly how important honey bee competition is. A similar problem exists with investigations into disappearing ladybugs. There are certainly strong correlations between increases in non-native ladybug abundance and decreases in native species populations. However, habitat loss and degradation, pesticide use, and many other factors are at play as well.

Scientists continue to delve into this and there are opportunities for you to help. For example, the Lost Ladybug Project is a community science effort that encourages people to send in photos of both native and non-native ladybugs to build understanding about changes in populations. Their website has information about how to become involved, but also some great information on how to identify ladybug species. For people in the Great plains, a particularly nice resource linked to on that site is the Ladybugs of South Dakota poster, which has terrific photos of 80 ladybug species. I’ve found it to be an easy and very helpful tool to identify species.

The Convergent Lady Beetle (note the two converging white lines) is native in North America and often sold for pest control (including in places where it isn’t native, which is scary).
The non-native seven-spotted ladybug, which has three spots on each of its elytra (its 2 hard wing coverings) and one spot split between them.
The non-native Asian (aka Harlequin) Lady Beetle might be the most conspicuous of the invasives because it often congregates in large numbers around human dwellings. It can have a wide range of colors and spot patterns but usually has a ‘W’ shape on its pronotum (the plate between the head and wings).

Ladybugs are an easy group of insects to learn because their spot patterns make them relatively easy to identify (though some of the species – especially the Asian lady beetles – can be variable in appearance.) Whether or not you join in community science efforts related to ladybugs, it’s important to be aware of what species you see around you. The two photos above show the most common non-native ladybugs seen around Nebraska. If you see something that looks like a ladybug and it doesn’t look like one of those two, take note. Even better, take a picture!

Once you have a decent photo, you’ll have a good chance of identifying the species. If you can’t figure it out, you can submit it to iNaturalist, Bugguide, or other sources. Pretty soon, you’ll become familiar with what the non-natives look like. The bad news there is that you’ll probably start to realize how dominant they’ve become in your area. The good news is that when you actually find a native species you’ll know it’s time to celebrate!

As I was looking through my ladybug photos for this blog post, I came across this image from The Nature Conservancy’s Flat Ranch in Idaho. I’m pretty sure it is the Transverse Ladybug (Coccinella
transversoguttata richardsoni), which is listed as ‘Lost’ on the South Dakota poster I mentioned above. As soon as I finish this post, I’m going to submit the photo to the Lost Ladybug Project. Then I’m going to celebrate!
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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

7 thoughts on “Losing Ladybugs

  1. Chris! What a great post and gives me yet another idea on how to involve getting kids in the Prairie. Ladybugs are beloved insects among the kiddos who go to no ends to find one, I tell them it means good luck if they do. Then the process of discovery begins….what do they eat, where do they live, etc. Kids are great sponges and beginning the interest in prairies at an early age might become a lifelong interest.
    Thanks once again for the beautiful photos and links to finding more information.

  2. Thanks for this great post Chris! I worry a lot about invasives of all kinds, but here in central Illinois I worry about unregulated pesticide use as much or more. And not only insecticides, but other pesticides which affect the growth and life of non-crop plants, microorganisms, and even fungi that are important to insects. Nearly universally used neonicotinoid seed coatings that get knocked off and made airborne by air-driven planting equipment and the huge increase in use of volatile plant growth regulator (PGR) herbicides (like dicamba and 2,4D to name a couple), spell huge new challenges for insects and the life that depends on them. Along with annual habitat loss, it all seems to add up to the perfect storm of maladies for life on the former prairie.

  3. What do you think of buying ladybugs in containers?

    Our local nursery, who specializes in native plants and tries to sell many organic or at least non-neocotinoid treated plants, sells then in plastic containers or mesh bags at times in spring.

    As someone who is trying to propagate native milkweed…which is challenging in my area…I felt like it was a great way of getting help with aphids.

    Retrospectively, I wondered if buying insects could be introducing fungus, bacteria, or viruses. Most of the outdoor chrysalises resulted in death before emergence or death by OE, 3/4, and I had to euthanize the 2 OE ones.

    It never even crossed my mind that there was a problem with non native ladybugs?

    Could non native ladybugs be spreading OE???

  4. Well, to be honest, introducing non-native species is of course never a good idea, but I don’t think we really need more science to know for a fact that the major problems for nature are habitat loss and degradation, pesticide use etc. The real problem is that the people who could make a difference don’t want to know.

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