Ladybug, ladybug fly away from the light

Illumination proves to be a fatal attraction

July 02, 2005|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Stop where you are. Turn away from it. Do NOT go into the light!

Too late.

Oh, the humanity!

No, it's not the war of the worlds, and no, the Orioles aren't back in first place. You know what we are talking about: dead ladybugs on St. Paul Street.

Yes, dead ladybugs.

Polka-dotted Volkswagen bodies, lifeless; ladybug wings, splayed in a death visage. Good luck gone bad. They did not turn away from the light. They went darkly into the ultraviolet light on the mean street of St. Paul.

At The Standard at 501 St. Paul St., custodians sweep the dead ladybugs off the 20 glass-covered lights embedded in the sidewalk surrounding the apartment building. More than a hundred ladybugs can die this way on any given warm-weather day. News coverage has been limited to, well, this article. But there are others among us who have seen the dead ladybugs.

"I notice them every day. It's definitely bizarre," says Mike Clark, an administrative assistant at The Standard, the Rockefeller-built, former Standard Oil Building that re-opened in 2002 as luxury rental properties. The ladybugs are in season -- at least at The Standard -- from late March to late August, Clark says. Not that he's made a study of beetles -- or has he?

"At one point in my life I was very much into bugs," he says. Ah.

The lights grandly illuminate the building by night. By day, the sidewalk lights resemble petri dishes for the convex carcasses of an insect that symbolizes good fortune. You know the myth: It's good luck if a ladybug lands on you. If it flies back, it also means good luck or means you have been rolling in tasty aphids. Ladybugs have also long represented hope for families waiting to adopt children from China. And ladybug toys, songs, books -- The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle! -- and poetry have invaded American culture much like the ladybug can invade a home until said homeowner sics the vacuum cleaner on the secreting devils.

All very fascinating, but what does all of this mean to The Standard?

"That the ladybugs keep flying back," Clark says, "so the building is good luck."

Not for the bugs.

Why are they attracted to this light?

"I would say it's very likely a heat issue," says Dean Brockob, a salesman for Hydrel, the California-based manufacturer of the outside lights at The Standard -- and a few indoor lights at Baltimore's National Aquarium. The lights, similar to stadium and parking lot lighting, are called direct burial light fixtures. It's a fitting classification given the beetle carnage.

The company has had cases at other properties of the light's glass covering being too warm for children, but Brockob says they've never had problems with ladybugs (although these fatalities surely are under-reported). The St. Paul Ladybug Mystery seemingly did not leave the Hydrel salesman grasping for more questions or information.

"Whenever you light something, people get excited, I guess," he says.

Excited is such a strong word. How about obsessively curious? Either way, a closer inspection of the ladybugs is required.

There are more than 500 species of ladybugs in the country, including the popular seven-spotted lady beetle more widely known, of course, as "C-7." The Standard's bugs, however, appear to be of the Asian ladybug variety given the double-digit spotting on their hemispherical bodies. Infesting Asian lady beetles, a rug-ruining nuisance in this country, are also known to bite.

They weren't biting this week on St. Paul Street. They were dead. Again. And there didn't appear to be any other dead insects around them. Haunting, perhaps unanswerable questions continue to munch at our souls.

How much would a Standard loft cost anyway?

Will Sammy Sosa ever reach base again?

Who will speak for the dead ladybugs?

Gary Booth will. Yes, the Gary Booth -- the Brigham Young University entomologist who has studied ladybugs for more than 30 years. Ladybugs are his great passion: "They are part of my life."

This week, he was informed of the ladybug deaths in Baltimore. The professor took the news reasonably well.

"It takes me back a bit," Booth says. "A ladybug is not a nocturnal animal. They don't fly at night. They are day fliers."

The Standard's outside lights automatically turn on when detecting darkness, so the beetles presumably are hustling over there before retiring for the night (affixing tracking devices to monitor their exact aerial habits would prove cumbersome). Turns out ladybugs don't see the normal spectrum of light; they are drawn to ultraviolet or "black" light, Booth says. The Standard's lights emit ultraviolet light, but why do the bugs stay on the light and not mosey off to someone's garden or carpet?

"Something in the light," Booth says, "is keeping them there."

Now, before PETA dispatches a brigade to St. Paul Street, the ladybugs are probably not frying to death on the lights. The beetles are likely dying from starvation; they need to be on green stuff, Booth says. They apparently do not know to leave the light and look for food. Their brains are literally the size of a bug's brain. Also keep in mind, their life span is 2 to 4 weeks, so one can't discount death by old age or boredom.

When the rest of the world seems so uninterested, it's just reassuring to find a kindred soul in Booth, an expert in his field, a passionate ladybug man. We felt he would want to know the whole truth, so we told him more than 100 ladybug casualties have been reported in a single day. Of anyone, he could handle the grim statistic.

"I don't drop over in tears just because they are lying dead on the ground," Booth says.

Tough ladybug love? You bet. But inside, he's got to be feeling our pain.

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