Two months ago our household number grew. No, I didn't give birth to baby number 6, nor did we adopt another child. Our previous count of 13—two human grownups, five human children, two dogs and four fish (now three, as one met "the big flush" last night)—increased by a hundred or so ladybugs. The advent of this increase was my children's discovery that one of the trees in our front yard is what we have come to term a "ladybug tree." That is, one so swarming with aphids (nasty little buggers) that their main predator, the ladybugs—or ladybird beetles, or Coccinellidae to you scientific-types—also swarm to it, eating the aphids, laying eggs, emerging as larva, becoming pupa and finally emerging once again, this time from a chrysalis, as fully-formed ladybug creatures. When they brought me a dozen or so clutched in grubby hands and asking for a jar, I thought it might be a good project for us to try and figure out how to keep them alive, rather than watching them suffocate or die of starvation in a few days.
Using the book Bug Zoo by Nick Baker and DK Publishing as a starting point, we set off. It is surprisingly easy to raise these little guys (and girls); while there are entire kits and habitats complete with eggs and some sort of nutritional goo available, we have done quite nicely with just what we can find around our house. Though I've seen online that some suggest the ladybugs may be kept all together in one tank—adult, larva, pupa, egg—we have found it easier to separate the different stages. This facilitates taking them to school to share with other kids. Both observation and handling are simplified.
Here is what you'll need to undertake the Rose method of Ladybug care:
- 2 Large Jars with Lids--I have found the best type to accommodate 50-100 ladybugs are those super-big plastic "jars" one might find at Costco, Winco, Wal-Mart, or others that an inexpensive brand of pretzels, animal crackers, cheese puffs or other snack comes in. (For example, the 35 oz "barrel" of Utz cheese balls.)
- Sticks or Twigs--These guys love to climb, and placing several twigs that reach the top of your jar provides a habitat that is fascinating to watch. Our bugs seem to really favor last year's dead lavender stalks, gathering en masse at times at the top of the seed pods.
- Cotton Balls or Swabs
- Raisins--Soaked to plumpness and chopped
- Soft Forceps--I do confess to using tweezers in a pinch (ha ha) but only with GREAT care. More often I coax the guys onto a leaf or my fingers. Or, one of those dry-dead lavender stalks they so love. Good thing we aren't great gardeners, huh!
- 2-3 Smaller Containers, preferably with lids--Any old kitchen storage thingie will do.
- optional but helpful—scissors and magnifying glass
- Place your twigs into the two big containers, along with a few raisin bits and a damp cottonball, or the snipped tips of cotton swabs, also moistened. (This provides a nice drink for your guests. Beware of too much moisture in your habitat, however, as it will encourage mold, which could kill your inhabitants, or "puddles" that the larva could drown in. Designate one container for grown-ups and the other for larva.
- Go find your buggies! Yes, you can buy ladybugs or their eggs at garden stores or online, but the search is a fun family activity.
- Take a smaller container to put them in, but make sure it's large enough to accommodate long twigs should you find any that are covered in aphids. You can place everything you harvest—ladybugs, eggs, aphids—in the same container, as long as you decamp them all as soon as you get home.
- Search for trees or bushes that are infested with aphids—you'll know it when you see it! The aphids may be green, black, red, or white & "wooly." Look on the underside of leaves to find them clustered. The small black flies you may see sitting among them are winged females. Ladybugs love them too! You can also identify it as a "ladybug tree" by the small clusters of orange, ovoid eggs. Be aware that a tree may be laden with aphids for a week or two then no longer bear insectile fruit (eeeeww!)
- Once you've identified a tree or bush with a serious aphid problem, look at the trunk, branches or leaves to find the ladybugs. I've noticed that those ladybug trees we've found around town seem to bear ladybugs in cycles. We may find one with many adult ladybugs—often mating, or as my five-year-old describes it, "giving piggyback rides"--and several egg clusters. In a couple of weeks this tree will have no vsible adults, but many larva. In another few weeks larva are gone and there are many pupa on the leaves. Rarely do we find that one tree has an abundance of all three at once, though it happens.
You may see a dozen or more adults on one small branch, or you may find larva curled in the leaves. Take either, but with care! Be aware that the larva do not look at all like adults. They resemble small, fearsome looking caterpillars or tiny alligators. Black or grey with orange markings, anywere from pin-head size to 1/4 of an inch in length.
It is often best to just pinch off the leaf a larva is resting on, or coax the adult to walk onto your finger. My children have become very good at using their thumb and forefingers in a pincer grip very gently, though I won’t deny we've had a few bugs hit the bottom of the jar DOA.
While you're at this, pinch off a few of the leaves that have eggs on them.
If you've harvested a few ladybugs, go ahead and harvest their dinner too. Each larva will eat 20-30 aphids per day, while the adults'll pack away over 50. The raisins are a great supplement if you can't muster quite enough aphids, and they will also eat a variety of other small insects or insect eggs. (Yes, if their own eggs are not removed they will even cannibalize them in pretty short order!)
- Divide your bounty. We have given cute names for each of the containers that house our ladybugs—Eggs are placed in a small container dubbed "the incubator"; Small larva in another small container we call "the nursery"; larger larva go into the first of the really big containers that we call "Preschool"; once they become pupae we place the chrysali in the third small container known as "Spring Break"; and the emerged adults spend the rest of their days in the second large container known as either "college" or "retirement condo" (we couldn't reach a consensus on this one.)
Place your bugs in their proper places.
- Adults are no-brainers.
- We separate the large larva from the tiny for two reasons—1) When we clean out the larva containers it is easy to miss the tiny ones and throw them out. 2) We have seen the really big larva get hungry and eat the littler ones. When they first hatch they are so small it is easy to mistake the still-curled babies for big pieces of dirt. We place them in the nursery and leave them until they are roughly 1/8 of an inch in length, then we move them to the preschool.
- I have found it best to snip away most of the leaf around the cluster of eggs or the pupae. This is because the extra leaf will dry out and curl up once it's off of the tree, covering the eggs or chrysali.
- Divide your aphids among nursery, preschool, and retirement according to the number of each you have.
- Begin the daily care and feeding of your new herd, adding more as family members find them.
- Incubator--The eggs appear as clusters of small, oval, yellow-orange things. Do nothing but check a couple of times each day to see who has hatched. Eggs will hatch 5-7 days after being laid. Your hatchlings will look like specks of dirt on top of the eggshells, which turn from orange to white once they've hatched. Though it will appear they are dead, they are actually feeding on their shells. If possible I lift out the bit of leaf they are resting on and place them in the nursery as soon as I see them. Once they finish their meal of shell, they'll stretch out and wander away on search of aphid-meat.
- nursery--As I said earlier, I keep the larva in this small container until they are about 1/8 of an inch and can fend for themselves. They are voracious. Even the tiniest will latch on to a full-grown aphid and ride it, all the while sucking the life out of it—literally! They eat a lot and grow pretty quickly. Soon they're ready for Preschool.
- Preschool--This large container will be their home until they reach the pupa stage. Continue providing food and stalks and watch them grow. You'll notice the silk bud, or sticky ball at the ends of their tails. When they are ready they'll attach this ball to a stalk, leaf, or the side of the jar, curl up, and metamorphosize. Carefully remove old leaves and stalks about once per week and nip off those that are holding your pupa to place in the Spring Break container.
- Spring Break--Cut away as much of the leaf or stalk the pupa rest on as possible and simply leave them be. You'll notice some movement in this phase, as the chrysali flex and sometimes look as though they are trying to stand up! After a couple of weeks the adult ladybug will wriggle its way out, pale yellow, wing casings still soft. Allow it to walk some and sit until its color comes in (a few hours), then carefully add it to its Retirement Home.
- Retirement or College--Here is where your ladybugs will finish out their days, unless you opt to free them. It is important to keep the jar free of excess humidity, and to clean it regularly—about every 2-3 days. For this procedure, place the jar in the refrigerator. It won't hurt them, only slow them down significantly for easier transfer. Move them to another container or bowl with a cover, remove all old leaves, and wash with dish soap and water, rinsing thoroughly. Replace your inhabitants (remembering to add new lavender stalks if the old look ones look like they are becoming bad) and replace your buggie friends back in their home. They will eat, mate, and lay eggs. Should you wish these eggs to hatch rather than becoming omelets for the ones who laid them, remove them to the incubator and begin it all again!
You can take the time to use a small soft brush to brush the hundreds of aphids you need off of each leaf, or try to shake the branches into a container, but by far the most efficient way is to pinch of leaves or twigs that are covered. We've identified more than a dozen ladybug trees where our daily routines take us. I don't want to strip any tree or bush, so our family rule is that individual leaves must have over a dozen aphids on them, and the twigs that sport many leaves must be covered. Scissors are handy tools for taking sticks or twigs.