Saturday, June 18, 2016

Help rediscover the 'lost ladybug'

            One of most exciting aspects of watching wildlife is that you don’t have to be a biologist or full-time naturalist to make important discoveries about the natural world. It’s not unusual for recreational birdwatchers to find and identify rare or out-of-range species, for instance, and the same is true of those who enjoy wild plants, butterflies, marine life and all sorts of other creatures.  Often all it takes is to pay attention to the species that cross your path and to know enough to wonder aloud if something seems out of place. And sometimes it takes even less than that.
            Take the rediscovery of the lost ladybug, for instance.  That’s not really its name, and it’s not really lost, of course; it has simply disappeared from most of its range. The nine-spotted ladybug was once the most common ladybug found in the eastern United States. It was highly valued for its ability to suppress pest insects in agricultural fields. One of several dozen species of ladybug native to the region – all more appropriately called lady beetles – it’s the official state insect of New York. But over the last 30 or 40 years, it disappeared with hardly anyone noticing, as non-native ladybugs arrived and became dominant.  
Nine-spotted ladybug by Larry Jernigan
            Nine-spotted ladybugs look somewhat like most other common ladybugs – reddish-orange with black spots. But this one has exactly nine spots, four on each elytra (that’s the reddish part that covers its wings) and one spot in the middle that’s split by the two elytra.
            In 2004, researchers at Cornell University started the Lost Ladybug Project to encourage the general public to look for it. They asked people to take photographs of any ladybug they find and post them to a website for experts to identify. By 2014, citizen scientists had submitted 30,000 ladybug pictures but found very few of the nine-spotted variety, mostly in scattered locations in the West. Just one was found east of the Great Plains.
In June of that year, however, a volunteer participating in the Rhode Island Natural History Survey’s annual biodiversity field day, BioBlitz, found a nine-spotted ladybug at Rocky Point in Warwick. It was the first record of the species in the state in at least 30 years, and no one knows exactly who found it – probably one of a group of kids using insect nets to capture whatever they could find. It took almost a year for all the insects collected that day to be identified. When the specimen was finally brought to the attention of the Cornell team, they rushed to the site to look for more but found none.
So David Gregg, director of the Natural History Survey, and the Cornell researchers hope you’ll join the hunt for the lost ladybug. June is the peak of ladybug season in Rhode Island, so if you see a ladybug that has even the slightest chance of being a nine-spotted ladybug, post a picture of it to the Lost Ladybug website. The site has tips for finding and photographing ladybugs, along with fact sheets so you can learn to identify the other ladybugs in the area.

The best chance of finding one is probably somewhere around Rocky Point, since that’s where the last local specimen was found. But the next one could turn up almost anywhere, including in your backyard. So be on the lookout.

This article was first published in The Independent on June 16, 2016.

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