Ladybugs on the Prowl!
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Written by: Charlotte Glen, Horticulture Agent
I am willing to bet a life and death battle is taking place in your yard this very minute. The reason you may not realize it is because you will likely need a magnifying glass to see it. Also, one of the competitors is in disguise. This battle to the death is taking place between two common insects, aphids, a common garden pest, and ladybugs, a beneficial or “good” bug. Lucky for us gardeners, the aphids are on the losing side.
Most folks recognize adult ladybugs with their dome shaped black on red polka dotted bodies. Many people, particularly gardeners, are aware ladybugs are beneficial and have a voracious appetite for aphids and other garden pests. But, can you identify a ladybug in disguise?
Immature ladybugs, officially known as ladybug larva, range from ¼” to ¾” long and look about as different from adult ladybugs as most of us look from our baby pictures. Often described as having an alligator shaped body, ladybug larva are gray to black in color with a red blotch in the center of their back. They have six legs and can move quickly to pounce on and devour unsuspecting aphids; a behavior that is definitely un-lady like, but very desirable in a garden setting.
Look for adult and immature ladybugs on plants that have aphids. Aphid populations build up very quickly and it usually takes a week or two for ladybugs to find them so be patient if at first your aphid infested plants lack ladybugs. Each ladybug will eat hundreds of aphids so it does not take many to wipe out even a sizeable aphid population.
Aphids are tiny (1/8”), oval to pear-shaped, soft bodied insects, sometimes referred to as plant lice. There are many different species of aphids, which occur in a variety of colors, including green, yellow, orange, brown, and black. Aphids are common on many different plants, especially in the spring. They can currently be found feeding on river birch leaves, rose buds and stems, tomato plants, gaura, daylilies, crape myrtles, lettuce, and many other plants.
All aphids are sap feeders, meaning they feed on plant sap with their needle like mouthparts rather than eating leaf tissue. There feeding sometimes caused leaves to become misshapen or discolored, but on the whole they cause little long term damage to plants in home gardens and landscapes. As they feed, aphids secrete a sticky, sweet substance known as honeydew which may attract ants and wasps. Black sooty mold will often grow on the honeydew, turning plant stems and leaves dark. The sooty mold itself does not harm plants, but if it covers lots of leaves it can cut off sunlight and reduce plant growth. Usually once the aphids are gone the honeydew washes off in the rain, but gardeners can speed up this process by spraying plants with water.
You may see ladybugs for sell online or in garden supply catalogs, but releasing ladybugs in your yard is rarely necessary or effective. When ladybugs are released their first instinct is to move away, so releasing ladybugs will more likely benefit your neighbor’s yard than your own. Rather than releasing ladybugs, you should concentrate on attracting them.
One of the most important things you can do to attract ladybugs and other beneficial insects to your yard is to grow a variety of different plants, including trees and shrubs, and especially flowers. Many beneficial insects feed on nectar and pollen in addition to bad insects, so include several types of flowers in your yard and try to have something in bloom from spring through fall. You also must be willing to allow aphids to infest your plants to lure ladybugs in and provide them a food source. Beneficial insects are very sensitive to insecticides, so minimize the use of bug killers in your yard and instead rely on nature to keep things in balance.
If you have gardening questions, contact your local Cooperative Extension Office. If you live in Pender County, call 259-1235. In New Hanover County, call 798-7660 and in Brunswick County call 253-2610, or visit https://www.ces.ncsu.edu/