By Amanda Wyatt
From the most avid nature lovers to the biggest city slickers and couch potatoes, nearly everyone likes ladybugs. But recently, a group of researchers, preservationists and local citizen-scientists have taken their appreciation for the “ladies in red” to a new level.
Led by a team from Cornell University’s Lost Ladybug Project and the Peconic Land Trust, these enthusiasts gathered at Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett on July 10 to document and collect various species of ladybugs.
The project, which is based out of Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Science, researches and examines the changes in the ladybug population across the United States.
In particular, researchers and participants were eager to find the rare nine-spotted ladybug (coccinella novemnotata), which they collected in glass vials to take back to the Cornell campus in Ithaca, New York.
Although it’s currently difficult to find, the nine-spotted ladybug is actually the official insect of New York State.
“It was named our state insect because it was once so common and considered so important for agriculture,” said Dr. John Losey, a Cornell professor and the director of the Lost Ladybug Project. “The problem is, by the time it was named, it had already started to decline.”
In fact, New York State went 29 years without seeing a nine-spotted ladybug, and researchers believed it to be locally extinct. But while organizing a search for native ladybugs at Quail Hill in 2011, Peter Priolo struck gold — or red.
“I wasn’t looking for the nine-spotted,” Priolo said. “I was, of course, hoping we’d find one, but I just wanted to find native ladybugs. I knew [Quail Hill] would be a hotspot for biodiversity because it’s an organic farm and their planting methods are very diverse.”
Priolo, who had previously interned with the Peconic Land Trust, was already familiar with the Lost Ladybug Project. He took a photo of a ladybug he found in 2011 and sent it to Dr. Losey, who confirmed that it was a nine-spotted. Soon, he learned that his discovery marked not only the first sighting in decades of the nine-spotted ladybug in New York, but one of the first in the entire Eastern U.S.
A science enthusiast since childhood, Priolo was excited to be involved in the project.
“I just do this for fun, and to fulfill that young science boy inside of me,” he said.
There are over 5,000 species of ladybugs across the globe, roughly 500 of which are indigenous to North America. However, the diversity within the ladybug population has greatly decreased over recent decades, and a number of species have become endangered.
“What we’re going from is a really diverse group of native ladybugs to a much less diverse group of foreign ladybugs, dominated by the seven-spot and the Asian, multicolored one,” said Dr. Losey. “We want to know what happened to the nine-spot and if we can turn that around. We fear that if we get totally dominated by just a few kinds, the ladybugs might not be able to do their job as well for us as they have in the past.”
Priolo, who has his bachelor’s degree in ecology, agreed that maintaining a wide variety of ladybugs was crucial. “The more biodiversity there is, the healthier it is,” he explained.
According to Dr. Leslie Allee, an entomologist at Cornell, ladybugs are one of nature’s best pesticides. Ladybugs prey on soft-bodied pests like aphids, who otherwise suck the sap out of leaves—essentially destroying farm plants and orchard trees. They also eat the eggs of scales, including mealy-bugs, and various other pests.
“The bottom line is that ladybugs help us grow food with fewer pesticides,” Dr. Allee said. “So ladybugs directly impact the amount of pesticides that are needed on many crops that we eat.”
She continued, saying that anyone “who’s concerned about getting wholesome, clean food with as few pesticides as possible should also be concerned about the fate of ladybugs. If we didn’t have ladybugs, we’d have to use many more pesticides and organic agriculture would really be in danger.”
“Every ladybug does its job a little bit differently in terms of eating pests,” Dr. Losey added. “So what works best for pest suppression is to have lots of different kinds all doing their thing in different ways.”
The Lost Ladybug Project, which was founded by Dr. Losey in the early 2000s, was originally intended to be a small-scale, local initiative. But after receiving funding from the National Science Foundation, they were able to expand their efforts. This led to media coverage, and the project quickly took off from there.
“We had thought we were just going to work in New York, as well as with some collaborators in South Dakota, and build it slowly,” Dr. Allee recalls. “But we got so much press that people from all over the country became interested, so we had to really scurry and grow the project quickly.”
In fact, citizen-scientists from all 50 states, as well as several Canadian provinces and Mexican states, have submitted their own photos and other research to the project.
According to Kathleen Kennedy, outreach manager for the Peconic Land Trust, researchers from the Lost Ladybug Project will be back at Quail Hill in a few weeks. Their next visit is scheduled for July 31, 2012.
Kennedy hopes that that the project will keep gaining momentum. “I think it would be great to do this as an annual event,” she said, adding: “Hopefully, we’ll have more and more people aware, and more and more ladybug colonies.”
Photography by Michael Heller