I woke to a perfect morning. For the first time in quite a few days the night temps had stayed in the 40s, and today -- high of 71, or better. (Better, as it turned out. I’m sitting outside right now enjoying a breezy 74.) The light and heat of the sun streamed into my bedroom as I woke. Stretching, savoring warmth on my skin, I opened my eyes to the morning, gazing toward the window seeing -- Ladybugs? Ladybugs filled the top half of my window, crawling over glass and curtain. The swarmed around the wall beside the window, and over the ceiling. Twenty, maybe thirty small, round, black and orange bugs, greeting the morning sun. Just like me. Unfortunately.
I have always been a fan of ladybugs. Even when I was really little and creeped out by almost anything that had more than four legs or moved unpredictably. Still, I was a farm girl, with one of those obnoxious older brothers who wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone, and never let me forget it. So I faked it, accepting spiders, frogs, crawdads and an innumerable parade of crawling, jumping, bizarre creatures. I don’t know if I ever fooled anyone -- my brother, I was sure, saw through me. Fortunately I didn’t have to fake it when it came to ladybugs. Easily identifiable, ladybugs seldom flew around you trying to get into you face or hair. They didn’t have long appendages sticking out in odd places, and they never, never jumped out of nowhere into your mouth. You may laugh, but we had three to four inch long grasshoppers. I kid you not. Some of them were probably longer, and they weren’t skinny little guys, but husky, well equipped with thighs that could fling them from a weed a yard or more away directly into you face or hair. And they were everywhere, leaping on me from all directions, clinging to my clothes and skin. Taking the nightly scraps to the compost heap was my own personal nightmare. I understood why locusts were a Biblical plague, even if they hadn’t eat anything.
Ladybugs, however, deserved their name. Lady-like one and all, they carefully walked onto my hand. Brightly colored, they actually made the flowers in the beds prettier. Add to that the sad story of a house fire, with “poor little Ann,” who had "crept under the frying pan." I decided ladybugs deserved protection. My kids learned to carefully carry them outside and place them on a leaf or flower. Spiders in the house? Stomp on them. Ladybugs? Man the door, rescue in progress! In those halcyon days of bug-love there were things I didn’t know about my tiny friends. Not until we retired in W. TN did I learn these sweet looking, aphid-eating darlings had a dark side.
It happened the first spring after we bought our house in a deceptively quiet looking hamlet, on a short, wooded street. Bright spring sun shone on the south-facing front of our yellow home. Spring here can be chilly, wet and gray for weeks at a time. But now blue skies had arrived, and the front of the house grew warmer almost by the hour. Stepping onto the porch, I noticed ladybugs crawling on the siding by the front door. OK by me, I knew my new roses would have plenty of protection from aphids. As they say in those gothic novels, “Had I but known…” These visitors are not Hippodamia convergens, the aphid eater of my childhood, but the infamous and invasive Harmonia axyridis. A native of Eastern Asia, they were introduced to the US to help control aphids, and happily settled in and began multiplying -- the insect world’s version of kudzu. They are beneficial, saving everything from pecans to soybeans from serious aphid infestations. But they’re also registered in some states as a minor agricultural pest, and have become despised by home dwellers around the South.
"Your house is on fire, your children all gone."
Most sources on Harmonia axyridis control tell me to collect the bugs, perhaps by vacuuming them into a fresh bag padded with paper towels; then immediately take them outside and set them free. An option is to set peeled apples in the rooms, collect the bugs that swarm on the fruit, and carry them outside. Presumably I’ll have to keep these apples sitting around my house for four to six weeks, fall and spring. Aphids won’t be they only thing in my homer attracted to rotting apples, believe me. And that's only if I can keep the dogs from eating the bait. What these do-gooders fail to realized is that these bugs have excellent eyesight, and will actually travel back to the place they were removed from. They also eat native ladybugs, the good guys I’d like to save. As for letting them loose somewhere else, believe me, no one else around here wants my pests. So I have declared war. Yes, I vacuum them up, but without one worry about the softness of their fall. Then I rubber-band a cloth over the end of the hose so they can't crawl back to their favorite hangout, my bedroom. After their version of spring break slows down, I empty the bag and toss them, dirt and all. After that I find smashing them with an old magazine and tossing them into the trash is quite gratifying. Especially accompanied by several rousing rounds of "Ladybird, Ladybird, fly away home." To Japan. Please.
Read Well, Friend