Ladybug on a leaf

Even if you’re no fan of insects, you’re probably drawn to cute, colorful ladybugs.

When you think about ladybugs, you probably picture a red beetle with two black spots, but that’s only one of many varieties. "There are close to 500 species of ladybugs in North America," says Rebecca Smyth, an entomologist with the Lost Ladybug Project. "Between 70 and 80 [percent] look like what we think of as typical ladybugs."

What you most likely don’t know, though, is that most of the ladybugs you see in your yard or garden are foreign invaders. Scientists are trying to find out where our native species are living and thriving — and they need your help. It’s as easy as taking photos and uploading them to the Lost Ladybug Project.

Ladybug Versus Ladybug

Most of us are delighted when a ladybug lands on or near us, but we would probably feel differently about them if we were another insect. These adorable beetles are actually predators, which makes them important to the ecosystem — and to our gardens.

"They perform a very important function in managing the populations of small, soft-bodied, plant-eating pests like aphids," Smyth says.

Aphids are a major food source for ladybugs because they’re tender year-round, unlike other insects that metamorphose into crunchier forms. But ladybugs don’t live on aphids alone: In the spring, they also eat the larvae of many other insects. And the ladybug’s own young are great pest controllers as well — fast enough to run after prey, they look a bit like little alligators.

Native ladybugs may have no trouble handling aphids, but the beloved beetles are losing the battle with relatives introduced from abroad. The most common, the Asian multicolored lady beetle, is large and aggressive — great if you’ve got pests on your crops, but not so great if you’re another ladybug.

"The problem is, these big, aggressive species develop quickly, they eat quickly, and no ladybug species is very fussy about what it eats," Smyth says. "They eat each other; they eat larvae of other species of ladybugs."

Which Ladybug Is Which?

In 1985, a book about North American ladybugs was published; at that time, the Asian species wasn’t common enough for scientists to include them on the maps showing different ladybug types and where they were found. Not quite 30 years later, however, "it’s the most common on the whole continent," Smyth says, and along with other introduced species, it’s outcompeting the natives.

The one time people tend not to find ladybugs quite so appealing is when they come into a home in large numbers to find a place to spend the winter. And nowadays, the ladybugs flocking to the indoors are usually the Asian variety. That fact might seem to offer a good opportunity to get rid of a bunch of the destructive insects, but unfortunately, doing so is tricky.

"Before they were here, another species, one of the now-rare species, was known to [commonly overwinter] indoors — the two-spotted," Smyth says. And occasionally, a group of ladybugs can contain more than one type, which makes it difficult to plan a wholesale elimination of a group. "Sometimes in those groups people find inside," she says, "there are also two-spotted ladybugs."

Compounding the problem is the fact that the culprit is hard to identify. Most species have a consistent pattern of color and spots, but individual Asian ladybugs don’t all look the same and need to be identified by features that aren’t so obvious.

"Our message is, unless you’re very, very sure it’s an Asian ladybug, don’t kill it," she says.

The Lost Ladybug Project

The Lost Ladybug Project started in 2008; since then, information contributed by participants has been crucial to understanding the ladybugs’ plight. It has helped locate populations of once-ubiquitous, now-rare species — populations that scientists were unaware of.

"We could not have found where they are persisting without the help of the general public," Smyth says. "All these volunteers have helped us find where these populations are still living."

Some of the populations were healthy enough that ladybugs could be collected to start colonies in the lab. "We’ve been able to do work in the lab that we couldn’t have done, that pieces apart some elements of the competition between introduced and native species," Smyth says.

Anyone can take photos of ladybugs and contribute them — you don’t need to know what species they are. The only required information is an email address to identify the contributor, what kind of habitat you found them in and the ladybugs’ location. (If you use the Lost Ladybug Project’s iPhone app, it fills in location automatically.)

Kids Can Help, Too

Searching for ladybugs is an excellent activity for kids — and, Smyth says, they are great at it. That’s partly because researchers really would love to have photos of every single ladybug you find.

"Kids are really good at finding little things like ladybugs, and they’re really observant," she says. "Also, they aren’t biased by how many of the same thing they’ve seen. They’re much more likely to be excited about every single one they see and want to photograph it, which is our ideal data set." And this is the perfect time to get your kids out there searching, before the weather turns too hot and dry.

The data your kids collect does more than help scientists — it can get your kids excited about science. "A lot of the time, kids have been looking at bugs already," Smyth says. "Finding out that there’s a scientist out there who wants to know what they already know is empowering."

Create a Ladybug-Friendly Garden

If you have a garden, another way to help ladybugs is to let them help you. "Remember, they’re great pest controllers," Smyth says.

You can buy ladybugs to eat pests in your garden — it won’t do any harm, but Smyth says it doesn’t seem to help much, either. The species sold at many lawn and garden centers are natives, and they’re collected in a way that doesn’t harm the populations — but when they’re released, they don’t tend to stay where you want them.

What will help ladybugs — and other insects and wildlife — is a pesticide-free environment. And who needs pesticides when you’ve got these cute, voracious little predators living in your yard? "Be patient," Smyth says. "Let the ladybugs come and get your aphids instead of worrying about them right away. I’ve seen it in my own yard."

And while they’re helping you out, you can return the favor by photographing them and sharing those photos with the Lost Ladybug Project.

"The rare species could be anywhere," Smyth says. "They could be in your backyard."

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