Connie Kingman is a freelance writer from Rensselaer, Ind. She is an advanced master gardener and advanced master naturalist who enjoys touring gardens around the world.

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Ladybug or Lady Beetle?
by Connie Kingman    

Lady beetle foraging on milkweed leaf. Photo by Connie Kingman
Lady beetles include more than 4,500 species worldwide, with more than 500 in the United States. Here is how to tell which lady beetle you might be looking at.

The lady beetles of my childhood were affectionately called ladybugs, and my memory colors them red with black spots. However, that idyllic image, secured in legend and lore, is no longer the species most people encounter today. My grandchildren are most familiar with the orange Asian lady beetle, the one that has become a nuisance in most households.

Before I go on, there is a matter that needs clarification — ladybug or lady beetle? Sadly, for the child in all of us, this insect belongs to the order Coleoptera and therefore is truly a beetle, and not a bug of the order Hemiptera. It is understandable that many people consider all insects as “bugs,” not knowing the intricacies of identification, and so it follows that maybe this is how the word “bug” became attached to the name. The “lady” part of the name is most commonly explained by a legend rooted in Europe during a time in the Middle Ages when plant-chewing insects like aphids and other soft-bodied insects devastated the crops of Catholic farmers. The farmers offered prayers for help to Our Lady the Virgin Mary. The prayers were answered by the arrival of lady beetles, whose dietary mainstay just happened to be aphids. In gratitude, the farmers named the insects “beetles of Our Lady,” later shortened to lady beetles. They may also be referred to as ladybird beetles. Today, lady beetles continue to be helpful as natural, biological pest controls for both farmers and gardeners, making them valuable and useful insects. 

Right: The twice-stabbed lady beetle (Chilochorus stigma) is quite distinct in appearance. Its elytra are black with two red spots, making this native species easy to identify. Above: This menacing-looking larva is an immature lady beetle, described as looking like an alligator. Like butterflies, lady beetles go through complete metamorphosis, from egg, larva, pupa to adult, looking very different in each stage. This larva is feeding with live aphids and shed aphid skins.
Photos courtesy of Department of Entomology Purdue University

Many Species

Lady beetles include more than 4,500 species worldwide, with more than 500 in the United States, making identification of an individual insect tricky. And though they may share many similar characteristics, lady beetles are far from identical. They display mixed combinations of size, shape, coloration, spotting and subtle differences in behavior. Their body colors include red, orange, pink, yellow, brown, gray and even black. And, their spots may not be spots at all, but squares, bands or splotches, numbering from zero to 20 or more. It is from these markings that lady beetles derive their common names such as the seven-spotted lady beetle, the nine-spotted lady beetle or the twice stabbed lady beetle.

Anatomy of a Lady Beetle

In general, lady beetles have shiny, dome-shaped, round or oval bodies with six legs and a pair of antennae. Their colorful, hard outer shells are actually two wing covers that close over their backs, called elytra. Folded under the elytra are two delicate, softer wings. Another interesting feature of a lady beetle’s anatomy is the pronotum, a protective, collar-like structure, situated between the head and elytra.

Following are a few, brief descriptions that demonstrate the diversity among species and serve as an aid when trying to distinguish one lady beetle from another; although, many look so much alike that accurate identification requires a specialist.

Asian Lady Beetles

The Asian lady beetle is sometimes called the multicolored lady beetle due to the species’ tendency to vary in color. According to the USDA, the insect was imported and released in this country as early as 1916 to naturally control insect pests. Further attempts followed with populations discovered in Louisiana in 1988. Other Asian lady beetles arrived unintentionally as “passengers” on imported nursery items. They are now well established in the U.S., and despite their value as voracious predators of aphids, thrips, flies and mites, homeowners consider them annoyances because of their custom of overwintering en masse in manmade structures.

The seven-spotted lady beetle (Coccinella septempunctata), also known as the European lady beetle: Head has two white spots, elytra is bright red with three spots on each elytron and one shared spot in the middle; pronotum is black with patches of pale yellow at the front corners. This is the original ladybird beetle of Europe, the object of lore and legend. Introduced species. The convergent lady beetle (Hippodamia convergens): elytra are orangish and speckled with multi-patterned spots in various numbers up to 13; pronotum is black with two converging white lines. Native species.

The multicolored Asian lady beetle (Harmonia axyridis), also known as the harlequin lady beetle: elytra range in a wide variety of colors from orange-red to black with many black spots or none; pronotum boasts a white M-shaped mark. It is also one of the larger lady beetles. Introduced species.

The nine-spotted lady beetle (Coccinella novemnotata): elytra are reddish-orange with four black spots on each elytron and one shared spot in the middle; pronotum is black with white marks on the front. Native species.

The transverse lady beetle (Coccinella transversoguttata): head is black with two white spots, elytra are red or orange with two white spots behind pronotum; a black band behind those spots and two elongated or teardrop-shaped black markings on each elytron; pronotum is black with white markings on each side. Native species.

To learn more about identifying lady beetles and finding our native species, check out to become a citizen scientist. The Lost Ladybug Project invites amateur entomologists to photograph lady beetles and submit their photographs to its database. From the information gathered, scientists will be able to locate our natives, especially those becoming rare and those changing their habitat.

Well, as a lady beetle lover and not a scientist, I can appreciate the insect’s charm and usefulness without the need for knowing its true identity. For me, it is a ladybug and will always remain so.

From State-by-State Gardening January/February 2013.


Posted: 03/26/13   RSS | Print


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