It’s been a good couple of weeks in the Ozarks. The weather has been fine: mild to warm days, mild to chilly nights, a little rain, a lot of fog. The remnants of Patricia came through last week. “The Strongest Hurricane Ever Measured in the Western Hemisphere” brought us the gentlest rain and warm air from the Gulf. It was amazing.
What a difference from its fury just before making landfall in Mexico, although, even then Patricia was surprisingly kind. When the hurricane suddenly developed in the waters southwest of Manzanillo, folks worldwide feared the worst for the Mexican people in its path. The Mexican government, however, handled the emergency perfectly, efficiently evacuating everyone possible from the coast. While there was some damage, some flooding, a few mudslides, and some roads blocked, according the LA Times the official death count was a glorious, and almost unheard of, zero!
Our hills and hollers were more than ready for the rain. It came too late to brighten most of the colors, though the grass is again optimistically green and up for, perhaps, one more mowing before the lawnmower is put away for the season. Most of the trees in this part of the county have grown weary and are ready for sleep. A few late comers are still in full celebration, living riots in red and orange, but most trees have bald patches now or are nearly bare, their colors fading into the deep russet of arbor dreams.
The insects are out in mass these days, searching for burrows, cracks and crevices in which to spend the winter. Asian Lady Beetles, especially. Sunday, I glanced at the Stone House’s east wall. It was lit up with warm sunlight and covered with lady beetles. Literally, a thousand or more.
One lady beetle is darling. Two are cute. A hundred is … well, interesting. But a thousand? A thousand is a sight straight out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
Once inside, I found them covering the east and south-facing window screens. Some had managed to get through and were on the glass. A few of those found the tiniest of cracks and were crawling on the living and bedroom walls. By late in the day Tuesday, a good fifty or so had made it inside the house. One flew on my hand. I let it crawl on my wrist, my arm. It ‘s prickly legs troubled my skin. When I picked it up to put it outside, it emitted a surprisingly pungent odor that lingered after it flew away.
This is the worst I’ve seen lady beetles, though one year on the Homestead, a swam of a hundred or so suddenly surrounded me, landing on my clothing as I jogged the fifty feet from the creek to the tent cabin. That scared the holy bejeepers out of me. This year, though, my fear was more for the house. So, I did a little research on them. Here’s what I found:
Asian Lady Beetles have been introduced to the US several times, but didn’t become established here until the late eighties. They are incredibly beneficial to agriculture. They eat plant-damaging aphids, mealybugs, scale and other soft-bodied insects. They didn’t take up residence in Missouri until the early to mid-nineties. Now they are widespread, not only across the state, but across the US.
Lady beetles can become a household nuisance in the autumn when searching for winter shelter and in the springtime when waking up and looking for exits so they can eat and mate. Apparently, getting into homes is fairly easy for them as they are the Houdini’s of the insect world. They can get in through any gap you can slide a piece of paper through (which explains how they got into my beloved old, drafty house.
Once inside, lady beetles do little if any damage. They do not feed on wood, clothing, or human food. They don’t build nests or dens. And, they don’t mate inside and they carry no human diseases. If they are squished or left to die in a vacuum cleaner bag, they may stain paint or smell. But, otherwise, as far as pests go they’re really not too pesty.
I found conflicting reports on whether lady beetles bite. MU Extension says that they do not bite, writing that it may feel like they do because their legs can feel prickly on our skin. Wikipedia says that on rare occasions the beetles do bite. However, both sources agree that, in self-defense, lady beetles may emit a rather smelly pheromone from yellow fluid (their “blood”) from glands in their legs. This pheromone (the same one used by stinkbugs) may sting when it hits the skin and cause a red welt on people who are allergic to it (thus all the ugly pictures of welts and bumps on Google images).
Some other interesting facts I learned about lady beetles: Their bright coloring is a warning to predators that they don’t taste good. Their pheromone ensures that they don’t. In the 1880’s Australian lady beetles saved the entire California citrus crop which had been infested with scales. One lady beetle larva can eat 400 aphids in the three weeks before it enters the pupae state and becomes an adult.
And finally, you remember the old nursery rhyme: “Ladybug, Ladybug, fly away home! Your house is on fire and children will burn. Except for little Nan, who sits in a pan, weaving gold laces as fast as she can!”? Turns out that rhyme developed in England during the Middle Ages. Every autumn, hops would be burned to incite spring regrowth. Often, the beneficial lady beetles would still be on the plants. The larva could crawl away from the fire, but the immobile pupae affixed to the vines would be killed.