They're spotty and dotty and help suppress pests. But over the past several decades, native ladybug species, such as the nine-spotted ladybug, have become rare in the United States.
Researchers want to know if these or other rare species are in your backyard -- so they're asking for your help in locating ladybugs where you live by just snapping a photo.
The Lost Ladybug Project gives participants a chance to observe their surroundings for all types of ladybugs, then provide important data to scientists that could ultimately become the next big discovery.
Anyone with a camera phone can instantly become a citizen scientist, said Prof. John Losey, Cornell University entomologist and director of the Lost Ladybug Project. Just upload the image, venture a guess as to the species and let the researchers do the rest.
“Even though citizen scientists may not be able to identify a species correctly, they can still make their attempt at identification,” Losey said. “Every data point is certified by our experts and then only the ones where we can identify the species go into the database.”
Losey has documented nearly 40,000 ladybugs. He said the database shows invasive or introduced foreign species continue to increase their dominance across North America but small populations of native lady beetles, though isolated, are fairly stable.
“Every image... increases our understanding of what’s happening to the whole ladybug complex and that’s now being used to set conservation plans and get some things listed [as species of greatest conservation need].”
Working with crowd-sourcing volunteers and their varying lady beetle locations, Losey and his team say they evaluate a greater variety of data than conventional science can offer. He said conventional science can have depth because of the big sample sizes available in agricultural settings around academic institutions.
But with citizen science, he said you get incredible breadth because spotters will send only one or two photos of ladybugs -- small sample sizes -- but they are from all 50 states, Canada and Mexico, and they tend to not be in agricultural settings.
“Using this wider net cast by our citizen scientists, over the last 10 to 15 years, we’ve identified substantially more of the rare native species than has been identified through conventional science,” Losey said.
The difficulty in finding the nine-spotted ladybug (Coccinella novemnotata) is what inspired the Lost Ladybug Project. It used to be one of the most common ladybugs across North America. Today, the species is extremely rare but Losey says he’s cataloged a few hundred of what he calls the “flagship species” of the project in New York, Oregon and Virginia among others.
“We’ve gone from a really diverse complex of native species to a much less diverse complex, dominated by a few foreign cosmopolitan species,” Losey said. “We are seeing that same trend worldwide.”
And he said that affects how well the lady beetles suppress pest populations. He suggests the more variety, the better.
“Without ladybugs and other predators out doing their jobs, we could never grow the crops that we need to survive.”