Do Ladybugs Bite?
Biting Ladybugs: Should I Run and Hide?
Ladybugs are one of those insects that even non-insect lovers tend to like. They're bright and colorful, tickle when they walk, and are easy to handle and play with. Kids don't feel threatened by them and adults will often go out of their way to move them or take them outside. There are countless children's story books about the wee creatures. However, they are still insects. In this post I want to share with you the awesome life cycle of lady bugs (you will never guess what they look like as babies!), their mouth parts/anatomy, and a few ideas for lessons or teaching materials.
Ladybugs Are Beetles
Ladybugs are in the order Coleoptera (Coal-ee-op-ter-a), which are beetles, and the family Coccinellidae (Co-see-nell-e-day). They are often called "bugs" but they are not true bugs, and yes there are actually creatures called "true bugs."
There are different thoughts on how they got their name, ladybugs or lady beetles. The name is thought to be associated with the Virgin Mary. Back in the middle ages the color red or pink was often associated with women, and especially the Virgin. The story goes that crops in Europe, during the Middle Ages (1690s), were being consumed by insect pests. The farmers prayed to Mary and were blessed with voracious little red beetles that ate the pests. Farmers called the beetles lady beetles (back then there was an aversion to calling them ladybugs because of the rather dirty term of "buggering" which meant something entirely different).
There are about 500 species of ladybugs here in the US and about 4,500 around the world.
Life Cycle of a Ladybug
Ladybugs live about a year and a few months, and they undergo complete metamorphosis, meaning they look completely different when they are young from when they are adults.
The eggs are cone shaped, usually yellowish to orangish, and laid on sticks or leaves near a food source (other bugs). There can be anywhere from 10-50 eggs.
When the eggs hatch the young larvae are really weird looking, nothing like the cute little ladybugs we all know and love. In fact, most people would see them in the garden and not know they were baby ladybugs. They are somewhat "alligator shaped" and covered in bristles. Regardless, they are voracious little wee beasties that love to eat garden pests, chowing down on aphids, insect eggs, mealybugs, potato beetles, corn borers, and other soft bodied insects. They sometimes eat each other too!
As the larvae grow they must shed their exoskeletons (outer cuticle), or molt, much like caterpillars. They molt through four instars, or larval stages before they pupate.
In the pupa stage they glue their butts to a leaf, their insides move around, a shell forms, and their outside skin splits and falls away. Check out this neat video:
Eventually the adult emerges, but its shell is soft, and it's vulnerable to predation until it hardens. Their shell may also appear plain and yellow at first, but eventually they will darken to a red and gain spots. The red coloration of ladybugs warns of their nasty taste to predators, which you can actually smell if you ever accidentally crush or vacuum one up. They bleed from the knees when threatened. (??!) This ooze is actually their hemolymph (a bug form of blood), which is toxic and foul smelling.
The adults also feed on soft bodied insects and help gardeners and farmers too. Like their larval counterparts they're also not picky. If food is scarce they'll eat their brothers and sisters.
It's a myth that you can tell the age of a ladybug by its spots, but you can possibly tell its species, especially the 4 spot, 9 spot, and 14 spot. Here's a quick one page guide for IDing ladybugs.
BUT DO THEY BITE?
The better question here is, "Can they bite?" not just "Do they bite?" Ladybugs feed on soft bodied insects because they don't have teeth (which would make them very frightening). However, like other beetles they do have mandibles or chewing mouth parts.
Below is a diagram of what their mouth parts look like. They have maxillary palps for feeling and tasting (they look like antennae but are smaller and they are often clubbed), an upper labrum or lip, a lower labium, chewing mandibles (pinchey bits, often serrated), and grasping maxillae (bits for holding).
Because ladybugs have chewing mandibles it means that YES, LADYBUGS CAN BITE; however, their mandibles are diminutive compared to humans, and in the grand scheme of things could only deliver a very minor pinch or bite. Ladybugs do not have poison glands or saliva, so the tiny bite would be an irritation at best. "Do they bite?" is another question. Most often they break and run, so they tend not to bite unless really provoked.
Scientists have studied ladybugs extensively, including the diverse number of species and their feeding modifications. Here is a drawing of the chewing mandibles that different species of ladybugs might have (top row), their associated maxilla/palps (middle row), and top lips shapes (bottom row).
TEACHERS TAKE NOTE: I've noticed that many educational websites actually get the antennae of the ladybug and the maxillary palps (the club like mouth part feelers) mixed up with the antennae. Try not to get them confused, and don't use a website that has the parts mislabeled! Here's an example:
The antennae in this photo are actually sticking up at an angle from the beetle's head.
Classroom Resources for Teaching About Ladybugs and Citizen Science
I wrote a pretty extensive piece for the Citizen Science website Scistarter, and their blog, all about the Lost Ladybug Project (click here to read the post and NGSS alignment). The project is based on citizen science for all ages, from children to adults (including classrooms). On their website you can find free downloadable posters, identification guides, lesson plans, books, songs, and more. You can become a ladybug spotter and help look for different species of ladybugs as well as contributing to a large database and map for scientists to use. Teachers can export data as well as summaries by species and counties. This is a great way to compare distributions of species and native v. invasive species of ladybug populations, incorporating biology and math into your lessons. This is one of the best ways to introduce natural "pest" control to students--using one species natural inclinations to control another "invasive" species without the use of chemicals or mechanical devices.
You can also observe live ladybugs in your classroom. I recently saw a large display of ladybugs at my local hardware store. You can purchase them from Carolina Biological Supply Company as well. Just be careful that what you order is not invasive to your region!!!
Here are a few books for teaching about ladybugs:
- A Ladybugs Life (Nature Up Close), John Himmelman and Melissa Stewart. (Elementary-Middle school)
- Are you a ladybug? Judy Allena nd Tudor Humphries (Pre K-2nd Grade)
- Lady Bug (Life Cycles), David M. Schwartz (Elementary)
- Incredible Ladybugs, Susan Ashley (Elementary to middle)
- Ladybug Winter Home, Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld (Elementary)
Even though ladybugs can bite, they most often don't, and they're harmless and charismatic wee bugs that can be a "safe" door into the world of insects for children and adults. Ladybugs are amazing agricultural helpers, wonderfully colorful and fun. Take time to observe them closely when they emerge for Spring, and study how awesomely structured they are for eating other bugs. Ladybugs are truly unique beetles.