Ladybugs On The Loose

THE REAL DIRT

February 21, 1993|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

It's cold outside, and I'm worried about my ladybugs.

Not the ladybugs in the garden. They are hibernating until spring, sleeping blissfully beneath blankets of leaf mulch. This is how ladybugs have passed their winters for millions of years. Come spring, they will awaken, stretch their stubby legs and dive into the emerging bug buffet that makes these colorful creatures so beloved by gardeners.

Those ladybugs can fend for themselves. They are programmed to arise when breakfast is ready.

But what about the ladybug I found swimming in my cereal bowl?

4 Or the ones trekking across the kitchen counter?

Or the legions of ladybugs that keep flying against the windows of our new sun room?

What should I do with the hungry ladybugs that are awakening inside the house?

No doubt, these bugs are confused. When they turned in last fall, bedding down in a crack in the chimney, they were outside. But that part of our home has since been enclosed. The chimney is now inside the house. The warmth stirred hundreds of drowsy ladybugs, triggering their biological alarm clocks and rousing them several months early.

Sorry, guys, the scenery has changed. Imagine the ladybugs' surprise at flying into man-made barriers, such as walls. We've found dozens of ladybugs lying dazed or dead on the floor, their tiny insect feet in the air.

Hemmed in, the ladybugs press against windows and doors, searching the house for exits. They've been spotted in three rooms, crawling over furniture, floors and the family cat.

One enterprising ladybug tried to go up the chimney. Another tried to swim to freedom in the kitchen sink. A third ladybug hopped a freight car on our daughter's model train and keeps riding 'round and 'round in circles.

They're awake, and they're hungry.

The plight of these ladybugs has caused great distress in our household. Their lives must be spared. The virtues of the ladybug are extolled by nursery rhymes and nurserymen alike:

Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home,

Eat all the aphids in my garden loam.

The ladybug is one of the most beneficial insects known to man. We're talking major-league garden predators here: Ladybugs have been known to polish off 40 aphids in an hour. They also like whiteflies, scale insects and mealybugs.

But where does one find mealybugs in winter? Gardeners can order ladybugs by mail, but I've never seen their supper for sale anywhere.

"Can't you feed them?" my wife asked.

I checked the refrigerator. We're fresh out of aphids. In desperation, I dug up some other goodies the ladybugs might like. Tropical fish food. Gummi-worms. A dead spider.

The ladybugs all turned up their noses, if in fact they have noses at all.

By now, I was frantic. If the ladybugs didn't eat, they would die. Unless . . .

Unless I sent them back to bed.

An entomologist said it might work.

"Make the ladybugs go back to sleep," said Bob Gordon of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Chances are they haven't been awake long enough to affect their diapause [the insect equivalent of hibernation]."

He suggested I gather the ladybugs and deposit them outside, tucking them inside a bed of leaves. They'll probably doze off until spring, he said. Chances are they won't remember their midnight stroll at all.

Gordon also offered this warning:

"Whatever you do, don't feed the rascals. That really wakes them up and breaks their diapause."

I assured him that wasn't the case.

I've been toting my ladybugs out of the house for several days, spooning them into a plastic cup and placing them under a pile of garden debris.

I hope the plan works.

The emigration has slowed to a trickle. Soon there will be none left to move.

Except for the ladybug on the train. She seems to be enjoying the ride.

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