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A Lady Makes an Unscheduled Appearance

The accidental discovery of a nine-spotted lady beetle near the nation's capital created a buzz that reached all the way to the New York State legislature in Albany

  • Anthony Hall
  • Oct 01, 2007
WHO COUNTS lady beetle spots? Children on a summer afternoon? Entomologists conducting meticulous research? Certainly not many people with busy careers such as Washington, D.C., attorneys Leslie and Jeff Perlman. And in their case, there was another reason not to count the spots--or at least not to look specifically for nine spots. "We thought, well, the bug is supposed to be extinct, so why would we be looking for a nine-spotted ladybug?" says Jeff.

Last fall, the Perlmans agreed to help their daughter, Jordan, a freshman entomology major at Cornell University who was gathering insects for a school project. With help from Northern Virginia youngsters Jilene and Jonathan Penhale and other friends, they collected all sorts of little creatures, which they put in plastic bags and overnighted to their Ivy League progeny. Among the lot: bees, wasps, hornets and "one really huge, leaf-footed bug," recalls Jordan. Their packages also included a number of lady beetles, including one with white markings on its face.

When she received the insect, Jordan realized it was unusual. She took it to her advisor, Cornell entomologist John Losey, an expert, as it happens, on lady beetles. The rest, you could say, is history. But in this case, the rest also is politics.

As it turned out, the insect the Perlmans collected was a nine-spotted lady beetle, a bug that only has been sighted six times in this country in the past seven years and has not been seen along the East Coast since 1992. Once common in many parts of the United States and southern Canada, the insect began declining in the early 1970s, after the more aggressive Eurasian seven-spotted beetle was introduced in North America to control pests. In the process, it began taking over the nine-spotted's habitat and food supplies.

Ironically, lawmakers designated the nine-spotted beetle as New York's official insect in 1989, just when it was becoming more and more difficult to find. And last year, after an observant environmental reporter from the Times Herald Record in Albany called attention to the fact that the insect apparently no longer lived in New York, the state assembly voted to rescind its status as an official emblem with a 149-1 vote--an easy victory for Assemblywoman Nancy Calhoun, although she could not find a sponsor in the state senate to push her bill along.

But the political climate can change quickly. Not long after the nine-spotted beetle arrived in a ziplock bag in Jordan Perlman's dorm room, authorities at Cornell publicized the discovery and talk about naming a new state insect began to fade in Albany. Now, Calhoun has no plans to revive her bill. "The fact that this species is in decline makes it a perfect symbol for New York's biodiversity," observes Losey. "We should rally around it like we did the bald eagle."

The nine-spotted bug is not the only native lady beetle that has suffered from competition and diseases from foreign species that were imported for pest control of aphids and scale. Population numbers are hard to come by, but "a lot" of the 400-plus native U.S. species are now in trouble, notes Tim L. McCabe, the state entomologist for New York. The Empire State alone, he says, lists 90 native lady beetle species and about 40 of them have experienced recent declines.

Despite the nine-spotted's vulnerability to exotic maladies and loss of habitat, Losey is hopeful of finding a viable population of the beetles. "There are probably many small populations dispersed around the country that are just flying below the radar," he says.

Losey sees this as an opportunity to create a new campaign of citizens helping researchers--people who are willing to look for ladybugs and report their discoveries. The Cornell scientist is now pursuing a National Science Foundation grant to provide funds for training the public to find and photograph the insects.

The Perlmans and the Penhale youngsters already are out there searching. "We look for lady beetles all the time now," says Jeff. "And whenever we find one, the first thing we do is count its spots."

Writer Anthony Hall is based near Ithaca, New York. To learn how you can help scientists locate lady beetles, visit http://ladybug.ento.cornell.edu.

Official Lands of Ladybugs

New York is one of six states that have recognized a type of ladybug, as the lady beetle is commonly called, as their official insect. The others are Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio and Tennessee. In almost every case, schoolchildren initially proposed the designations.

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