Prof. John Losey, entomology, understands the ecological importance of each insect species. So forces beyond his control conspired to eliminate agriculture’s long-favored, nine-spotted heroine, Losey and the entomology department joined forces to aid the native species, founding “The Lost Ladybug Project.”
In the late 1980s, the populations of several species of indigenous ladybugs began to decrease. During the 1990s, nine-spotted ladybug populations disappeared entirely in the northeastern United States. However, in October 2006, Jilene and Jonathan Penhale miraculously discovered the first northeastern, nine-spotted ladybug in 14 years.
“There are still ladybugs out there,” Losey explained. “The problem is we’re losing species.”
“The Lost Ladybug Project” encourages non-scientists, like farmers, gardeners and children, to aid Cornell researchers by collecting information about the habitats and locations of local ladybugs. Researchers then apply this information to their studies in an attempt to identify the cause of population declines.
According to the group’s website, “To be able to help the nine spotted ladybug and other ladybug species, scientists need to have detailed information on which species are still out there and how many individuals are around.”
The group promotes a simple procedure.
First, the project asks volunteers to collect ladybugs of all species. The researchers integrate data from multiple populations, welcoming information about all ladybug sightings, including nine-spotted, two-spotted and seven-spotted species.
“We just really want them to take a picture,” Losey said.
Second, the project researchers need volunteers to provide clear, unaltered photos.
According to Losey, the researchers do not need live specimens. Instead, he explained that, to identify the cause of the disappearance, researchers must make comparisons across populations, collecting data about their locations, diets and ecological competition.
“Before we can do the experiments to conserve those species, we need to find the viable populations,” Losey related. “We can start to get a fact of where these populations are.”
From the data the volunteers provide, Losey and his colleagues hope to identify the possible causes of the eminent ladybug extinctions.
“We don’t know exactly,” he admitted. “We suspect it has something to do with introduced species of ladybugs.”
According to Losey, over many years, 30 foreign species of ladybug entered the United States. These species may carry fatal diseases that kill domestic ladybugs, or the foreign species may exhibit superior predatory skills, compromising the domestic ladybug’s diet.
Additionally, Losey recognizes the possibility that interbreeding between species may have occurred, producing new categories of ladybugs. For instance, he suggested that foreign seven-spotted ladybugs might mate with nine-spotted counterparts, producing seven-spotted children. Though the offspring may contain the genetic material of two species, if the foreign traits hide the domestic traits, scientists may not recognize the hybridization.
“Ladybugs are extremely important,” he explained. “Without them … we wouldn’t be able to produce the food we eat.”
Ladybugs are predators, and they consume home and agricultural pests, like aphids and mealybugs. Losey recognizes that ladybug predation provides an indispensible, nontoxic service, and he estimates that insect predation provides $14.5 billion of natural pest removal.
“Insects do a lot of the dirty jobs for us. 80 percent of birds couldn’t survive without insects for food … all the freshwater fish are dependent on insects for some part of their lives,” he described. “Each type of ladybug does their job in a different way.”
Each species of ladybug exhibits variations of behavior. This behavior varies according to time, season and location, yet no one species can determine the ecological welfare of the entire environment.
“The Lost Ladybug Project” recognizes the importance of each specific species. According to Losey, in 2008, the group gathered over 700 images from more than 40 species of rare ladybugs — more than the global entomology community found in the previous 20 years.
“I think it really empowers young people,” he said. “They can make a real difference."