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In search of the 'lost ladybug'

Thousands of citizen scientists send in photos to help Cornell University researchers determine why some species of the colorful beetles are becoming so rare.

April 23, 2012|By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times
  • 'Citizen scientists' help researchers at the Lost Ladybug Project by sending in photos of species they spot. The popular project is trying to find out why some native species are declining.
'Citizen scientists' help researchers at the Lost Ladybug… (Gary Queener, Lost Ladybug…)

NEW YORK — Leah Tyrrell wants to make something clear: She does not wear ladybug sweatshirts. She does not carry her belongings in ladybug bags, shelter from the rain beneath a ladybug-shaped umbrella, or take notes with pens decorated with little ladybugs.

True, someone did give her earrings in the shape of ladybugs, and another admirer gave her a rock painted like a ladybug. A woman once saw her in the supermarket and said loudly, "Oh! The ladybug lady!"

For the most part, though, the Buffalo-based student and mother of two says she is no different from thousands of other people across North America and Mexico who have become absorbed in an effort called the Lost Ladybug Project, which Cornell University entomologist John Losey started 12 years ago to document the insects and determine why some species are declining.

In the beginning, ladybug collectors worked with sticky cards — trapping the bugs onto gluey bits of paper or cardboard and sending them to Cornell. It was good for the science but not for the ladybugs.

"Mostly when you get on a sticky card, you don't get off again," Losey said.

By 2004, the program had gone digital, with participants uploading photographs of ladybugs and volunteers pulling together a database of the discoveries. Now, the Lost Ladybug Project is a wildly popular "citizen scientist" project, with at least 14,939 sightings reported by spotters so far.

"People just love ladybugs," said Losey, who has funding from the National Science Foundation as well as lab and office space at Cornell to keep the project going at least through 2015. "It's a very sort of charismatic, approachable insect."

With prime ladybug-spotting season approaching — ladybugs tend to hibernate in fall and winter — people like Tyrrell once again are heading outside in search of the little beetles. Many are buoyed by last summer's discovery of some rare nine-spotted ladybugs on Long Island.

"It's ridiculous how much I know about them now," Tyrrell said as she headed into her garden for a quick peek at her plum tree, ticking off trivia about ladybug mating and eating habits. "They eat everything from aphids to mold."

Like most of those who submit ladybug pictures to Cornell, Tyrrell, 33, is not a bug expert and has no special science training. She is a self-described nature lover who dotes on the native plants in her organic garden in central Buffalo. Tyrrell credits her study of art and photography in high school with enabling her to spot the tiny bugs that others might never notice.

"A lot of people are looking for something specific. They're not necessarily looking for something the ladybug project wants them to search for," she said, describing how she peers into masses of leaves, branches and buds to spot a particular shade of color, or a tiny movement.

In July 2009, Tyrrell and her toddler son, Jack, discovered an Adalia bipunctata — a two-spotted specimen — in their plum tree. Of all the ladybug sightings reported to Cornell, only 222 have been this species, and most have turned up in Canada and the western United States.

But no sighting has generated as much excitement as the one last July at the Quail Hill organic farm on Long Island. There, Peter Priolo found a nine-spotted ladybug, the first documented in New York state in 29 years.

The species had become so rare here that lawmakers, fearing it was headed the way of the dodo bird, considered for a time replacing the nine-spotted ladybug — formally known as Coccinella novemnotata — as the official state insect. Only 105 of the once-common nine-spotted brand, valued for devouring pests, have been reported to the Lost Ladybug Project from anywhere in North America.

"That's the celebrity beetle of the group. It's like the golden ticket," said Priolo, 27, an organic gardener and agricultural expert who was working with Cornell and with the Peconic Land Trust, which runs Quail Hill, when he found the famous bug.

By comparison, spottings of Harmonia axyridis — the Asian ladybug, which was introduced to the United States in the 1980s in a pest-control effort — number in the thousands, leading scientists to speculate that introduced species are pushing out natives.

"It was incredible, like goose bumps," Cornell entomologist Leslie Allee said of Priolo's discovery. "We were jumping around. We were screaming. The two-spot was really cool; the nine-spot was like, 'Wow!'

"They used to be just everywhere, and now they're not," Allee said of many native ladybug species, which account for about 500 of the world's approximately 5,000 types. "We want to try to understand why, and if we can bring those species back."

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