Welcoming Immigrants Into Our Homes?
This soggy winter has dragged on longer than usual, interrupting our usual thaws with sudden cold snaps that brought snow and ice in their wake. Now that the days are finally growing warmer, buds are swelling, catkins are blooming, and my windows are bright with ladybugs. This new apartment apparently hosts quite a lot of these cheerful little bugs, which have been snuggled up somewhere in the walls, waiting for winter to be done. I definitely agree about that part, but it can be a bit disconcerting to find your view blocked by slow moving critters, however tiny. Several friends are experiencing similar visits and are wondering where the ladybugs came from and what should be done about it.
The good news is that these ladybugs are benign and even useful. Nonnative but definitely beneficial, they were introduced by the Washington State Department of Agriculture in the late 1970s to control field pests. Like the ladybugs that inhabit our gardens in summer, these imported critters would fly long distances in their native land (Korea) to reach their ancestral hibernation grounds. (Our “local” ladybugs mostly overwinter in high altitude caves in Mexico.) Like migrating birds, ladybugs apparently use some kind of internal GPS to find their way along their accustomed routes. However, once displaced from Korea to Washington (and now other places along the West Coast), these poor little creatures can’t find their way home, so they sleep over at my house, or perhaps yours.
Don’t Bug The Woke Ladies
When spring arrives and the air warms up, Korean ladybugs awaken and try to get back outside. For some folks, finding what might feel like an invading army of redcoats on the windows can trigger attempts to get rid of them. However, hungry ladybugs eat their weight daily in pests like aphids and whitefly eggs, and these little ladybirds can be terrific garden helpers. Put outside too soon, they’ll simply die for the lack of edible insects. Instead, tuck these beneficials away until spring is truly here.
Rough treatment can damage or kill ladybugs, so gently sweep them into a dustpan or use a hand-held vacuum cleaner with a clean, empty bag. Use a wide-mouth funnel or paper to gently transfer your ladybugs into a clean glass jar with a lid (canning jars work great). Add a small piece of damp (not soaking wet) paper towel, loosely screw on the jar lid and refrigerate the jar. When garden aphids arrive in late April or early May, you’re ready for them.
Inviting Guests To Stay A While
Commercially sold ladybugs are different species, but your Korean immigrants should be just as welcome, since they’ll be just as effective in your garden. To get them started, they’ll need the same wake up call as the dormant native ladybugs we buy at garden centers. Many gardeners have been frustrated by watching their newly released ladybug fly away before they get around to eating any garden pests. To release newly awakened ladybugs without losing them, sprinkle the garden with the garden hose, or pick a rainy, warm release day. Emerging ladybugs are very thirsty and if water is available, they will fly away to find it.
Despite the frequently offered suggestions on the internet, do not spray dormant ladybugs with sweet drinks (such as fizzy pop) to glue their wings shut for a week or so. This is horrible for your ladybugs, which often die without mating (not at all what you or they want) when hampered by this “glue” treatment. Water’s what they want, and after a refreshing drink, they want to mate (must be universal). Next, they lay fuzzy orange ladybugs eggs that hatch into larvae that resemble tiny black alligators with orange or red spots and eat even more aphids than adults.
Treat Invited Guests With Care
I hope it’s obvious that to protect beneficial bugs like ladybugs, bees, and other native pollinators, we must avoid toxic chemical pesticides. Many garden toxins have a broad-spectrum kill effect and some target up to 100 kinds of insects. Since the Northwest only has about a dozen harmful insect pests, more non-target insects than pests are needlessly harmed. I’ve heard those who are squeamish about bugs say “so what?” quite often, but let’s all remember that over 97% of all known insects are either harmless or beneficial, including many lesser known pollinators from hoverflies to native bees.
If you want to rid plants of pests without harming ladybugs and bees and other beneficials, the best place to start is with water. Many pests can be washed away with the hose, especially if you attach a Bug Blaster. This high-pressure nozzle makes a terrific tool for taking out everything from aphids to caterpillars without hurting plants or innocent bystanders. It looks pretty much like a watering wand but powerfully concentrates the water flow (especially useful where water pressure isn’t very high). They’re great for blasting off spider mites, aphids, and whitefly, which are killed by the force of the water, though our plants are unharmed. It’s also good for rinsing pollen, molds and mildews off decks and outdoor furniture and cleaning moss off stairs and sidewalks. If your local nursery doesn’t carry them, you can find the wands on line in varying lengths for around $20 and up, as well as a converter nozzle that turns any watering wand into a blaster.