See those red spots on your milkweed seed pods?
Lady beetles (aka ladybugs or "garden heroes") are feasting on aphids.
And they're having a ball.
We've been watching the critters on our milkweed, Gomphocarpus physocarpus, for the last couple of months. The plant is a favorite among monarch butterflies, florists and interior decorators. This is the host plant of the monarchs; caterpillars eat only milkweed. It's also a "hostess" plant; florists add them to their floral bouquets and interior decorators grace their holiday tables with them. In fact, interior decorator Allison Domonoske of South Carolina transformed the White House Thanksgiving tablescape with moss, driftwood, pine cones, little white pumpkins and what she called "balloon-plant milkweed: large, green, ball-like flowers."
That was them!
We call them "lime green ball-like pods, covered with tiny spiny hairs"--or you could call them "spiky seed pods," as the Washington Post did. At any rate, they're often used for decorating.
Hmm, a forest green Douglas Fir Christmas tree adorned with lime green spiky seed pods? With red bows amid the green boughs? Gomphocarpus physocarpus to the rescue!
According to the Master Gardener Program, "the name physocarpa comes from the Greek physa meaning bladder and karpos, fruit, referring to the inflated, bladder-like fruits. It has a plethora of common names including balloon plant, balloon cotton-bush, balloon milkweed, bishop's balls, elephant balls, hairy balls, monkey balls, swan plant, and many others." It's also known as goose plant, giant swan milkweed, family jewels, Oscar, and by its former botanical name, Asclepias physocarpa.
It's a tall, spectacular plant that can reach a height of an NBA All-Star. Last summer monarch butterflies laid their eggs on it, lady beetles kept the aphids off it, and praying mantids kept everything off, including bees, butterflies and beetles.
If you have some growing in your garden, think holiday decorations...minus the red lady beetles, the First Ladies of the Garden, and their prey.
Fly away home.
Your house is on fire
And your children are gone.
How many times have you heard that nursery rhyme?
Better yet, how many times have you seen a lady beetle (because they're beetles, not bugs) take off?
Look closely for lady beetles in aphid-infested milkweed plants and you might see this phenomenon. The lady beetle opens its elytra (a modified hardened protective wing case) and out pop the wings.
This lady beetle (below) was munching and crunching aphids on a tropical milkweed this afternoon in Vacaville, Calif., and then opted to take flight. Just another beneficial insect eating soft-bodied pests and then heading off to another "restaurant" that features its prey.
Goes to prove that lady beetles are garden heroes. And when they take flight, they look like super heroes: the superman/superwoman of the garden.
You can learn more about lady beetles from the Natural Enemies Gallery, part of the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management (UC IPM) website. "Although they are extremely important natural enemies of aphids, their propensity to disperse makes it difficult for them to be used in inoculative or inundative biological control programs," UC IPM points out.
Tell that to the children chanting the nursery rhyme and they'll probably grow up wanting to learn more about these amazing insects and it's not about their house being on fire: "Their propensity to disperse makes it difficult for them to be used in inoculative or inundative biological control programs."
So, here I am, an Asian lady beetle (Harmonia axyridis) perched on a rose bush in Vacaville, Calif., as dawn breaks. I'm eating aphids and minding my own beetle business, which consists of gobbling aphids and more aphids. And more aphids. Did I say more aphids? More aphids.
Wait, what's that? Something is heading straight toward me, its wings are flapping like crazy. Hey, I was here first. Go away!
Whoa, what are you doing? You've landed and you're licking me. What do you think I am, a honey stick?
That's what happened during a backyard encounter with an Asian lady beetle and a large syrphid fly. The fly, identified by senior insect biosystematist Martin Hauser of the Plant Pest Diagnostic Branch, California Department of Food and Agriculture, is a female Scaeva pyrastri.
Hauser and Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis, agreed that the syrphid fly is "going after honeydew on the beetle's head." Honeydew is a sugary, sticky liquid that aphids secrete when they're feeding on plant juices.
"The beetle was full of honeydew from feasting on aphids," Hauser noted, "and that is what the fly was after."
"I do! I do! I do!"
Some of us engage in wedding photography.
Not with humans. With insects.
All you need is a bride, a groom and a…hmm…bedroom. That could be a leafy green bedroom in the rose garden where the lady beetles, aka ladybugs, are. Most of the time they're in the kitchen, eating aphids. Sometimes they're not.
Sometimes the activities underway aren't just...well...."integrated pest management activities." Think two ladybugs on a leaf. Two. One is not a "lady." There's this gender thing.
Life is simple in insect wedding photography.
- There's no preacher saying “Let us prey.” The bride and groom are both predators, and aphids are their prey.
- There are no vows. There's no “til death do us part.” Unless the bride and groom are praying mantids and the groom is about to part with his head.
- Love amid the roses? Well, there is “I larva you.” But insects are interested in only two things: reproduction and an all-you-can-eat buffet.
- There's no wedding party. But there is a congregation of favorite aunts (ants) and soldiers (soldier beetles), and assorted uninvited guests, including lacewings, honey bees, syrphid flies and spiders. Some of the guests are eating one another. Oops! Is it too late to hire a wedding planner?
- There's no need to coordinate what the mother of the bride and groom are wearing. They're wearing spots. And a few minutes ago, they flew off in search of more aphids. Sorry, to leave you, dears, but we're hungry.
- There's no wedding cake. Aphids are the fare when you're a ladybug. Mites and scales are fairly delicious, too.
Here's the kicker: the bride and groom will never, ever--never, ever!--complain about how fat, old, tired or wrinkled they look in the photos. They're as cute as well…bugs…and bugs are pretty darn cute.
If you want to pursue insect photography or insect wedding photography, you'll need a macro lens, patience, and the ability to blend into the scene.
Just don't bug the love bugs.
Have you ever watched a lady beetle gobble up those pesky aphids? Aphids may look fragile, harmless and sluggish, but wow, can those tiny insects ever suck those juices right out of your budding roses and other plants!
The UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM) defines aphids on its website: "Aphids are small, soft-bodied insects with long slender mouthparts that they use to pierce stems, leaves, and other tender plant parts and suck out fluids. Almost every plant has one or more aphid species that occasionally feed on it. Many aphid species are difficult to distinguish from one another; however, management of most aphid species is similar."
"Aphids have soft pear-shaped bodies with long legs and antennae and may be green, yellow, brown, red, or black depending on the species and the plants they feed on," UC IPM says. "A few species appear waxy or woolly due to the secretion of a waxy white or gray substance over their body surface. Most species have a pair of tubelike structures called cornicles projecting backward out of the hind end of their body. The presence of cornicles distinguishes aphids from all other insects."
"Generally adult aphids are wingless, but most species also occur in winged forms, especially when populations are high or during spring and fall. The ability to produce winged individuals provides the pest with a way to disperse to other plants when the quality of the food source deteriorates."
Right. If you look closely, you may see the winged ones. Or see them being devoured.
For lady beetles, this is not about eating just one. it's an all-you-can-eat buffet of hapless prey. It's like the insect version of a robotic vacuum cleaner or a paper shredder of industrial strength. Or the insect version of Joey "Jaws" Chestnut, the Major League eater who reportedly trains by fasting and by stretching his stomach with milk, water and protein supplements.
Lately we've been watching the multicolored Asian lady beetle, Harmonia axyridis, go about its business of eating aphids. It's a predator with a purpose: 50 to 75 aphids a day.
It doesn't need to train.