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.
Oleander aphids, those cartoonish-looking yellow insects with black legs and cornicles, are commonly found on oleanders. Hence their name. But they also are partial to milkweeds, the host plant of the monarch butterfly.
It's a daily challenge to rid those Draculalike pests from our milkweed plants. They pierce the tender stems and suck out the plant juices. Hey, do you mind? Those milkweeds are reserved for monarchs!
Fortunately, lady beetles, aka lady bugs, come to the rescue! Unfortunately, lady beetles also dine on monarch eggs.
It's a case of predator vs. prey (lady beetles vs. aphids) and beneficial insect vs. beneficial insect (lady beetles vs. monarch eggs).
Today something a little more unusual happened.
An oleander aphid hitched a ride on the back of a lady beetle. Apparently unaware of the hitchhiker (fast food at that!), the lady beetle kept gobbling up the aphid's relatives in an all-you-can-eat buffet.
We watched the lady beetle scurry up and down the mllkweed and then take off with the aphid securely on its back.
The lady beetle became the pilot, and the aphid, the passenger. The fair game became a free fare.
How do you control aphids on milkweed but still keep the monarch eggs?
An article appearing Nov. 9, 2012 in the Los Angeles Times had this to say:
"Monarch eggs are more tightly attached to leaves than aphids, so with just the right amount of pressure you may be able to wash off aphids without destroying the eggs.Sprayed water may only dislodge the pests, which can climb back up on their own or be returned by aphid-harvesting ants. Soapy water may dislodge and kill more aphids, but it also is more damaging to the monarchs and can build up on the plant."
"Though tedious, dabbing aphids with cotton swabs dipped in isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol is most effective. That kills them outright. Alcohol, however, also is lethal to monarch eggs and larvae, so care must be taken when dabbing."
For more about aphids, be sure to read the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management's Pest Note. Be aware that aphids are not just sucking pests. They can also transmit viruses. "Squash, cucumber, pumpkin, melon, bean, potato, lettuce, beet, chard, and bok choy are crops that often have aphid-transmitted viruses associated with them. The viruses mottle, yellow, or curl leaves and stunt plant growth."
If there ever were a Christmas bug, it would be the ladybug, aka lady beetle.
The insects (family Coccinellidae) are brightly colored and spread joy in the garden when they feast on aphids.
Last summer we enjoyed watching them hanging out and hooking up. Their voracious appetites reminded us of holiday diners.
Please pass the aphids!
We netted the floundering California lady beetle (Coccinella californica) aka "lady bug," from our swimming pool.
She didn't look like the familiar lady beetle, reddish orange with black spots. One spot was all she had.
And little life left.
Then, slowly, miraculously, she opened her wings to dry out, looking somewhat like a drenched DeLorean with its doors flung open.
She reminded us of the nursery rhyme:
Fly away home.
Your house is on fire.
And your children all gone.
All except one.
And that's little Ann.
For she crept under
The frying pan.
I don't know if she flew home. She definitely didn't creep under a frying pan.
But our little Hemiptera predator did live to see another day, and perhaps feast on another aphid or two.
Or a scale insect, mealybug or mite.