Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Lady of No Spot

I found this little ladybug on the top of the yard-waste bin when I went to put the trash out over the weekend. Its elytra were so vividly red, it looked like a droplet of blood. The lack of spots made it look quite exotic, though I think it belongs to a species fairly well represented in the Pacific Northwest. I'm not a coleopterist (nor do I play one on TV), but it appears to be a Western Blood-Red Ladybeetle (Cycloneda polita polita).

This possible identity came up in an Internet search. My field guides weren't much help in identifying the little beetle. Granted, there are about 350,000 known species of beetles ("on Earth," many sources like to add, suggesting the possibility that beetles abound on other planets--but with beetles being so abundant, who knows?). And there are more than 450 species of ladybugs just in North America. So that would be one heck of a fat field guide if it listed all the possibilities. Instead of boosting toddlers up to table height with a phone book, parents could use a Ladybug Field Guide to do the job.

The field guide did suggest one spotless species, the ironically named Spotless Nine-Spotted Ladybug. But the shield behind the head did not look the same, much to my relief.

Right after I snapped this picture of the ladybug, a spittlebug toddled past her. A spittlebug is a nymph; when it grows up, it's known by the equally wonderful name of froghopper. Spittlebugs are not generally regarded fondly. They're condemned as pests, and a quick Google search turns up many sites suggesting how to eradicate "infestations" of them. They're particularly loathed by growers of alfalfa and other crops.

But I still harbor a fondness for these little creatures. I remember, as a kid, learning that the weird blobs of foam I saw on plant stems were made by tiny bugs hidden inside them, merrily spewing bubble fluid out of their hind ends and whipping it into a foam with their legs and bodies. The first time I poked a grass blade into one of the little foam homes, I encountered a tubby bug with big brown eyes that looked like a cartoon character. It's hard to shake first impressions. My infestation of spittlebugs quietly resides on the stems of the Canterbury bells in my garden, and both seem to be thriving.

After I loaded the images onto my computer, I noticed what looks like an aphid moseying about in the background. As aphids are the ladybug's main prey (a ladybug may chow down on 5,000 aphids in a lifetime), you'd think it would steer clear, but it was quite unconcerned. Perhaps, like a gazelle on the savannah stepping lightly past a recumbent lion, it knew the ladybug was sated. More likely, it's just completely oblivious. (OK, you probably can't be partly oblivious.)

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