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Weekly “What is it?”: Ladybug larvae

Juvenile ladybugs bear almost no resemblance to their adult form. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Several years ago, I taught a pesticide class to professional lawn care providers. The point of my presentation was to help class participants learn the difference between “good” beneficial insects and “bad” plant-destroying bugs. I projected a photo of a caterpillar-like insect on the screen, and asked everyone to raise their hand if they would apply a pesticide to rid a lawn of the insect pictured. All but one person raised their hand, indicating they believed it was harmful. The one who kept his hand down indicated that since he did not know what it was, he would need identification before spraying anything. This guy would’ve gotten an A. I explained to the class that this was the larval form of a very well-known beneficial—the ladybug. Looks of incredulity met my gaze, as the juvenile is larger, different colored, and has no hard shell like the beetle it is. I tell this story not to embarrass the lawn care guys, as they were in the class to learn that very type of lesson. Odds are, most homeowners might see a ladybug larvae and mistake it for a pest as well.

The pupa form of a ladybug attached to the underside of a leaf. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Just recently, I got to personally witness part of the ladybug (also known as a ladybird beetle) life cycle I had never seen. One afternoon, I noted multiple larval and adult ladybugs on a hibiscus plant in my backyard. One of the larvae, however, had appeared to attach itself to the underside of a leaf. As I watched, it started making whole-body wiggling motions from the bottom up, almost as if it was trying to pull on a pair of tight pants. In under one minute, a thin yellow quasi-shell moved from the bottom of the larva towards the head. It was suddenly still, bright yellow, and looked almost like a light-colored adult ladybug. I was baffled at how quickly the transformation happened—it basically excreted a brand new exoskeleton before my eyes. Returning an hour later, the insect was gone—the new adult left its pupal form behind.

Upton later reading, I found that the metamorphosis of a ladybug is quite similar to that of a butterfly, albeit quicker. The pupa phase, when it attaches to the leaf and morphs from larvae to adult, only lasts about a week. I must have caught the very last moments of this phase in my backyard.

So, keep an eye out! If you see any of these forms of the ladybug in your yard, they are highly beneficial predator insects. Both the larval and adult ladybugs will eat the aphids and scales that are after your garden and landscape plants!