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Ask Dr. Universe: Ladybugs survive the winter by hibernating in large groups

After emerging from winter hibernation, hundreds of ladybird beetles, often called ladybugs, cluster in the leaves under a shrub on the South Hill on March 31, 2013. The ladybird beetle, Hippodamia convergens, is a gardener's best friend, eating perhaps its weight in aphids daily. Strict carnivores, they eat no leafy vegetation. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
After emerging from winter hibernation, hundreds of ladybird beetles, often called ladybugs, cluster in the leaves under a shrub on the South Hill on March 31, 2013. The ladybird beetle, Hippodamia convergens, is a gardener's best friend, eating perhaps its weight in aphids daily. Strict carnivores, they eat no leafy vegetation. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State University

Q. How do ladybugs survive the winter? Are ladybugs we see in spring several years old or did they just hatch? Are they worms before they are beetles? – Tanya, Pullman

Dear Tanya,

You know it’s springtime when animals start coming out of hibernation. That includes ladybugs that crawl out from their cozy winter hiding places.

As you pointed out, ladybugs are actually a kind of beetle called the ladybird beetle. They go through a life cycle of four stages: egg, larva, pupa and adult.

When these young larvae hatch from their yellowish eggs, they don’t look like worms or even beetles.

They look more like tiny alligators with six legs and tiny spikes on their backs, said my friend Laura Lavine. She’s a scientist at Washington State University who studies insects and was happy to help out with your questions.

In the summer, these young alligator-looking larvae can be found searching for their favorite food. They feast on tiny insects called aphids that live on plants.

Young larvae are hungry predators. In fact, ladybird beetle larvae will even eat each other, spikes and all, if they get hungry enough. But more often, the larvae will feast on aphids.

These larvae shed their outer skeleton throughout this stage of life. They’ll use some of this shedding to attach themselves to a plant or sometimes the side of a building for their third stage of life. In this stage, they’re called a pupa and they build a cocoon to go through a transformation.

You may have heard about how a caterpillar changes into a butterfly. A caterpillar is also a kind of larva. It changes into an adult in a process we call metamorphosis. Ladybird beetle larvae go through metamorphosis to become adults, too.

After spending about two weeks inside their cocoon, or sometimes less, the adult beetle comes out into the world. Adult beetles will live for around three years or so. During that time, they will lay eggs and create several new generations. So the beetles you see in a group could be different ages.

When fall rolls around, adult beetles leave their feeding sites in yards, fields and forests to hide out for the winter. They need a place where they can huddle together with hundreds or thousands of other beetles. This helps them stay protected from weather and keep from freezing.

They’ll find places in cracks, crevices, tree bark, and even your house or roof to spend the winter. On the Palouse, we can find them in cracks of pine trees or logs. I might just have to take my magnifying glass outside and see if I can spot some ladybugs waking up from their hibernation.

Sometimes they land right on you and start crawling. But other times they can really zip around. Believe it or not, scientists have clocked ladybird beetles flying at 37 mph.

Have you seen ladybugs or other insects in your neighborhood? Were they nesting together? Have you ever spotted a ladybird beetle larva? Take a look in your neighborhood and tell me about it at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu.

Sincerely,

Dr. Universe

Ask Dr. Universe is a science-education project from Washington State University. Submit a question of your own at askDrUniverse.wsu.edu/ask.

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