If you have roses blooming in your yard in the winter--or trying to bloom--check to see if there's a lady beetle, aka ladybug prowling around.
A lady beetle can eat as many as 5000 aphids in its lifetime, so they're the good guys and gals in the garden.
"These beetles have become a cultural icon of sorts because of their appearance and their beneficial habits," writes UC Davis professor Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology, in her insect fact sheet on Lady Bugs and Lady Beetles. "Both adults and larvae feed on aphids and other small, soft-bodied insects...They are ferocious predators on small insects."
Lady beetles do have predators, though, despite (1) their bright red "warning" coloration that yells "Hey, wait, don't eat me! I don't taste good!" and (2) the toxic chemical, isopropyl methoxy pyrazine, that oozes from their joints when they're disturbed.
Ever seen that? We did one summer when a cellar spider nabbed a lady beetle in its web and began eating it.
It probably didn't eat it all...
That's the astronomical moment, according to the Farmer's Almanac, "when the Sun reaches the Tropic of Capricorn" and "we have our shortest day and longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere in terms of daylight. Regardless of what the weather is doing outside your window, the solstice marks the official start of winter."
If you're in the cold, so are the insects.
We captured images of a lady beetle, aka ladybug, covered with rain droplets as it huddled on the silvery gray foliage of our Artemisia, a plant that belongs to the daisy family, Asteracease. Some of the common names among the species in this genus are mugwort, sagewort and wormwood. Bug on a mugwort?
After the winter solstice, the days get longer and the nights get shorter. Is it too soon to think about spring?
If only this insect, in its own bubble of sorts, could talk...
The lady beetle, aka ladybug, scurried up the lion's tail plant, Leonotis leonurus.
Up one stem and down another, she went. Apparently, she didn't find what she was looking for--aphids or other small bodied-insects--and took flight.
If you haven't planted this in your pollinator garden, you should. A native of South Africa, it is cherished for its dazzling orange spiked blossoms, reminiscent of a lion's tail. The plant is a member of the mint family, Lamiaceae, which means it has square stems.
Other attributes include: drought resistant, deer resistant, and basically disease-free and pest-free. It attract birds, butterflies and hummingbirds. And our little buddies, the lady beetles. You can never get enough of them!
Note also that the lion's tail is known for its medicinal properties. "The main psychoactive component of Leonotis leonurus is claimed to be leonurine, even though leonurine has never been found in the plant using chemical analysis," according to Wikipedia. "Like other plants in the mint family, it also contains marrubiin. The name 'wild dagga' links it closely to cannabis as 'dagga' derived from the Khoikhoi 'dachab' is an indigenous South African name for cannabis species. This name may be a misnomer, as no part of the plant is used as a hallucinogen."
Wikipedia adds: "The infusions made from flowers and seeds, leaves or stems are widely used to treat tuberculosis, jaundice, muscle cramps, high blood pressure, diabetes, viral hepatitis, dysentery, and diarrhea. The leaves, roots and bark are used as an emetic for snakebites, bee and scorpion stings. The fresh stem juice is used as an infusion drunk for 'blood impurity' in some places of South Africa."
We just like the calming effect it has in the pollinator garden.
So here are all these milkweed bugs clustered on a showy milkweed leaf, Asclepias speciosa. It's early morning and the red bugs are a real eye opener.
They're seed eaters, but as Hugh Dingle, emeritus professor of entomology, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology says: "They are opportunistic and generalists." They not only eat seeds, but monarch eggs and larvae, as well as the oleander aphids that infest the milkweed.
But wait, one of these is not like the other.
A lady beetle, aka ladybug, photobombs the scene. It sleeps with them and eats (aphids) with them. They are sharing the same food source: oleander aphids.
Let's hear it for biocontrol.
You've seen lady beetles, aka ladybugs, preying on aphids.
But have you seen an assassin bug attack a spotted cucumber beetle?
How about a crab spider munching on a stink bug?
All biocontrol, part of integrated pest management (IPM).
If you access the University of California Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM) website or more specifically, this page, you'll learn that "Integrated pest management, or IPM, is a process you can use to solve pest problems while minimizing risks to people and the environment. IPM can be used to manage all kinds of pests anywhere–in urban, agricultural, and wildland or natural areas."
Or, UC IPM's more in-depth definition:
"IPM is an ecosystem-based strategy that focuses on long-term prevention of pests or their damage through a combination of techniques such as biological control, habitat manipulation, modification of cultural practices, and use of resistant varieties. Pesticides are used only after monitoring indicates they are needed according to established guidelines, and treatments are made with the goal of removing only the target organism. Pest control materials are selected and applied in a manner that minimizes risks to human health, beneficial and nontarget organisms, and the environment."
Think of biocontrol as beneficial: "Biological control is the beneficial action of predators, parasites, pathogens, and competitors in controlling pests and their damage. Biological control provided by these living organisms (collectively called "natural enemies") is especially important for reducing the numbers of pest insects and mites, but biological control agents can also contribute to the control of weed, pathogen, nematode or vertebrate pests."--UC IPM
Yesterday we witnessed an incredible case of biocontrol in action.
At Bodega Bay's Doran Regional Park, Sonoma County, we spotted a great blue heron stepping stealthily through a thatch of ice plant in the Jetty campground. It was 6:30 in the morning. As campers slept in their recreational vehicles a few feet away, the great blue heron just kept stepping silently through the ice plant. One step. Another step. And another.
And then it happened. Its long sharp beak speared a rodent. Yes, they eat rodents. It crunched the body from head to toe, breaking the bones, and then swallowed it whole.
Not a pretty picture, but a simple case of biocontrol, compliments of a hungry heron.