We're going to talk about beetles, specifically lady beetles, in an effort to uncover the truth about 14 lost lady beetle species in Vermont. That effort is being done through the Vermont Atlas of Life project committed to mapping and monitoring Vermont's biodiversity.
VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with Spencer Hardy from the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. Their conversation is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Epp: First of all, your project is called the Vermont Lady Beetle Atlas, and most people are more familiar with the term ladybug. So is there a difference or is 'lady beetle' just the correct term?
Spencer Hardy: Lady beetle is the scientifically correct term. They're in the beetle family, whereas the true bugs are a whole different family, but they're known as ladybugs and that's a perfectly fine thing to call them.
Okay. And so how does this atlas work and what are you hoping to accomplish?
So it sort of started on a whim with a data set that Kent McFarland, the project coordinator for the Vermont Atlas of Life, found one day that had a list of lady beetles that were collected or recorded in Vermont in the early 1900s, up to about 1976.
And what he saw on his list was a lot of species that were not currently in Vermont or ... hadn't been found in Vermont since then. That got us working on trying to figure out where these lady beetles are and if they are truly missing or if ... people just aren't looking for them. Many people are probably familiar with the Asian lady beetle, the one that comes into people's houses in the fall and spends the winter on your windowsill. This is a non-native species that was introduced in the late 1990s, I believe, and has essentially out-competed or even eaten a lot of the native species.
What exactly are the species that have been lost? And is it other invasive species that have caused them to disappear?
I think there are 14 species that we're considering lost, as in they haven't been seen since the 1970s in Vermont. A couple of them, like the nine-spotted, are large and relatively distinctive. Some of these other species are quite small and obscure and potentially on our list only because people haven't been looking for them.
You personally made a big discovery on the first weekend of this project. What exactly did you find?
Yeah, so I was out doing my day job for the Vermont Center for Ecostudies. I was looking for bees on Snake Mountain in Addison County and I happened to notice a lady beetle that ended up in my net somehow. I don't know where it came from or what it was doing. But when I saw it, I recognized it as ... one of two small groups of beetles that are hard to identify. So I added it to my collection of bees and brought it home. And I looked at it in the lab a few days later and realized that it was the four-spotted spurleg lady beetle.
And so this was a species that had not been found in Vermont since the 1970s?
Yes, it was here. And I think there are records of this species from two counties, Addison and Washington, prior to 1976. But it has not been recorded in Vermont since then.
And so, I mean, you obviously have a keen eye for these things. But what was specific about this beetle that stood out to you that made you realize this was not something you typically see?
Yeah, so unlike the common Asian lady beetles and the other big large red species that people are probably familiar with, this beetle is all black with four red dots. And there are a lot of small beetles that are prominently black with small amounts of red and white on them. But the distinctive thing about this species and this genus, in fact, is that they have a tiny spur on their four tibia, which you can really only see under a microscope.
And so, one down, 13 to go of these of these lost species. And I understand you're also relying on residents, citizen scientists, to help document these, right?
Yeah. So that's a big part of this project at the moment. We're using iNaturalist, so anyone can download this app, go out in their garden and take pictures of lady beetles — or anything else they find — upload it and then add it to the Vermont Atlas of Life and, if it's a lady beetle, the Vermont Lady Beetle Atlas. This is a great way for people to identify things that are in their garden eating their aphids, and for us to collect data on where these beetles are. Even if it's common beetles, we like to know where they are, when they're flying, if they're active in the spring, summer. There's so much we don't know about all of the lady beetles in Vermont that any data is really helpful.
Just finally, Spencer ... you mostly work with bees. And I think most people are probably familiar with the idea that bees are an important part of the ecosystem as pollinators. What's important about lady beetles? Why are they an important part of the biodiversity of Vermont?
I think from a human perspective, it can be argued that lady beetles are even more important than bees for gardeners and farmers around the state. Many of them are predators of aphids, both as larva and as adults. They eat predominately the soft bodied insects that are on a lot of plants in the Northeast. So they're doing a big service to us as humans. But also ... there are all kinds of intricate relationships in the natural world, some of which are only poorly understood.