Thom Smith | NatureWatch: Is it ladybug season already?

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Q: It seems early, but the past few mornings, I have found ladybugs in the house. Maybe 10 years ago, our home, sheds and barn were a magnet for these pesky little insects. Then we had many hundreds, and you told readers to vacuum them up and do what we must. They never returned in the numbers they did back then. What was the reason that there were so many then and only a few now? I don't mind a few. They are useful, are they not?

— Alice, Pittsfield

A: The native ladybugs are welcome in our gardens as they consume aphids. Those that occur in hoards are the Asian ladybug, more accurately the Asian lady beetle (it is not a bug) and goes by several other names; for instance, the Halloween lady beetle because they are often pumpkin-orange and observed around that spooky time of the year. The helter-skelter arrangement of spots helps us to recognize them. Some may have only one or two spots on an orange back, others may have an assortment of spots on a cream-colored or a red back and may have up to 20 spots. The name I got used to during their early invasion was the multi-colored Asian lady beetle. It was first introduced in 1916 as a biological control against aphids, and again in the 1960s. Most introductions failed until the 1990s, when they began to grow in numbers. Today, it is found across the continent.

Their habit of entering shelters in the fall mainly in the North, is apparent, to avoid the onslaught of winter. Often, especially during October, we will see hundreds of them on the sun-filled walls of barns, houses and the like, looking for a way to get inside. Which reminds me, if they are inside your home now, before the cold season arrived, find out where they get in and caulk.

Q: Where are the monarch caterpillar chrysalises, Thom? My happy caterpillars (many more this year) don't answer when I ask them where they will cocoon themselves.

— Ruth, Richmond

A: The simple answer is where they feel the safest. In a converted aquarium, I equipped with a variety of "branches" constructed out of plastic coat hangers within reach of a central bottle holding both water and milkweed stems with leaves. Two attached their caterpillar selves to the glass of the tank, another to the milkweed stem, less most of the leaves one particular caterpillar consumed with greed. Two others attached to the plastic coat hanger "branches." Now, to answer your question with my saying again where each feels safest. They do have a variety of predators from wasps, spiders, mantids, stink bugs and others. Last year, I was moved to rear caterpillars through to adulthood after I found a stink bug sucking one dry. I had found another monarch caterpillar that looked like a "steam roller" had flattened it, the work of a stink bug.

I lost track of the number of caterpillars I left to their own devices and kept a lookout for predators. And when the caterpillars I was following disappeared, I searched for their chrysalis; one was attached several feet away near the top of a tall sunflower stem. A couple more attached to bushy swamp milkweed, not the common milkweed I had followed two from itsy-bitsy caterpillars to fully-grown specimens. Another that spent its caterpillar days on common milkweed surrounded by hydrangea could have easily hidden there. I searched in vain for it in the hydrangea and skimmed over the sunflowers with no success. Don't feel bad; in my opinion, they are difficult to find. In addition to hiding from predators, the caterpillars also look for shelter from rain and wind. I don't understand why we see so few caterpillars when a female lays 300 or more eggs!

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Q: I saw a gray squirrel, and it had a rat's tail. Everyone I've spoken to has told me this is common. The tail was round about 16- to 18-inches long and came to appoint.

— Robert, West Springfield

A: I cannot say just how common this is. It does happen and not only will a tail become hairless, the back or neck or head may also be hairless. A year ago, in April, a reader from Bennington, Vt., wrote to me about a group of squirrels all with varying degrees of hairlessness. In this case, because the writer was concerned for the birds and other animals in the vicinity of the squirrels, I told her otherwise healthy squirrels would "get well" on their own, although squirrels with hair loss sometimes succumb to hypothermia. And it is not known to travel to us, pets or other common wildlife found at bird feeders.

I sometimes suggest that someone concerned over this problem may contact a veterinarian or animal control officer for advice. The reason more than one squirrel in a group may be missing patches of hair or even a naked tail is the responsible mites can be carried from one squirrel to the next. It is essential to repeat that there is no indication that whatever the cause, it is not known to travel to us or our household pets. Often, we call the problem mange, which is caused by the squirrel mange mite, Notoedres douglasi. Mange is a disease caused by burrowing mites, which often results in a squirrel missing hair. Mites are tiny, eight-legged creatures, and many live by burrowing under the skin of their hosts, causing redness, irritation and hair loss.

Q: In August, I noticed some trees starting to turn fall colors. What's up?

— Ed, Lanesborough

A: The simple answer is those trees are for some reason stressed unless the trees happen to be red maple that turns early in the season. Earlier than other trees, anyway.

Thom Smith welcomes readers' comments and questions. Email him at Naturewatch@live.com.


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