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925 Silver Collection

On Ladybugs

By Bill Lasarow

Jan Brueghel the Younger, “Still Life with Flowers in a Glass Vase,” ca. 1625-30, oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

First, a word on our English designation for this unique and likable insect, of which there are over 6,000 known varieties. Its generic name, ladybug, is a sexist artifact. We could rename it if we (or rather the entomologists, who call it a cocciellidae anyway) like, or preserve it as a beneficial relic. It is and will remain one of the most human-friendly of all insects. A ferocious devourer of smaller insects in its larva stage, most especially aphids, they are voracious predators on their home turf, nothing is cute about them. We get a net benefit from our gardener’s distance, hence to us they are cute. I could spend a column just on the commonality and strangeness of insect larvae. Today I honor the intrinsic and metaphorical nature of these very familiar little beetles.

I just released a modest batch of about 150, but not just anywhere in my, or my neighbors’ yards. The cubic air space would make their presence only symbolic, a cheap gesture. So before doing that I ask myself: What is an optimal number of ladybugs per cubic foot of airspace?

Vincent van Gogh, “The Red Vineyard,” 1888, oil on canvas, 29 1/2 x 36 1/2”. Courtesy of the Pushkin State Museum, Moscow.

This little sampling came from my neighborhood Armstrong Nursery, where they were giving them to customers that day as a promotional item to entice you to buy more. I am partial to Armstrong’s employee-owned business model, and to the scope and generally good quality of merchandise. The staff are always, it seems, happy to be there to advise and assist, though the extent of their gardening knowledge varies widely. Oh, and if you buy a plant (no, not marigolds and pansies, such plants are supposed to last only a short while) and it fails, there’s no charge to replace it. That first year I turned my focus on gardening, the Covid-19 year, enough recently planted perennials failed to establish themselves, leaving me perplexed. When I found out it was all about the dirt, the plant food, and the water, I was humbled but determined to carry on with the gardening project. As with art, mistakes are integral to the learning process, and conditions are often simply beyond your control. Join the crowd. On that day of spring pony pack purchases I also came away with my free sample of 150 ladybugs.

Yayoi Kusama, “Flower Obsession,” 2017, installation. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Photo: Eugene Hyland.

Here I have to add that it is well known how artists buy or grow flowers, flower beds, or gardens, mainly so they can paint them, most famously Claude Monet and his gardens and lily pond in Giverny. That is not my interest at all. It is the canvas of my fenced in yard, large by urban standards, that captivates me. It was never a blank canvas. When we purchased the house there was already this enormous lawn ringed by fruit trees, roses, and a haphazard mix of decorative perennials such as irises. Once I took up my spade, having read and done enough gardening in the past to at least have some idea what I was doing, I began a process of strategizing the entirety of the space in order to build out a series of incidents that would be interesting both in daylight and nocturnally.

In the four years since I have developed a handful of raised beds in enclosed spaces for selected and well protected plants (edibles of course), measuring about 4 x 4 x 6 feet each, or 96 cubic feet. The layer of soil and plants occupy only a small slice of that modest space. That would be one shitload of dirt, however, if I wanted to fill it. Air is far more malleable and elastic. For 150 ladybugs it’s pretty snug. They can fly elsewhere right through the mesh if they want, which would indicate there are too few aphids for their liking, a very good sign.

Donald Judd, “Untitled,” 1962, oil and wax on canvas, 69 x 101 3/4”. Courtesy of the Judd Foundation, Marfa, Texas.

The deal is that because ladybugs are benign to us but lethal to aphids, we leave them undisturbed. Buying them at the nursery implies there are not enough of them in our habitat to protect our tomatoes, so we need to flood the zone. It is reasonable therefore to ask what an optimal ladybug distribution is in an enclosed or semi-enclosed space — how many per cubic foot of airspace leads to maximum benefit. You have to think about the severity of pest infestation as well as the natural inclination of the ladybugs to come and go in search of prey.

That the ladybugs are free to leave not only implies a lack of available feeding opportunities, but their group migratory patterns. Insect migration is not very different from that of larger animals. With changing seasonal temperatures, ladybugs will go where the aphid action is, and that means where the vegetation is that they feed on. Southern California becomes very attractive earlier in the late winter and early spring more than do areas to the north because temperatures rise earlier, and along with that the plants that attract feeder insects germinate and mature sooner. Consequently the best time to put them in your yard here is March, April, perhaps through May. As we inch into the summer months the best hunting moves steadily north, where plants get a later start but mature rapidly.

Georgia O’Keeffe, “Red Poppies,” 1928, oil on canvas, 30 x 40”. Courtesy of the University of Minnesota Art Museum, Minneapolis.

Thinking back to the Whole Earth Catalog days of my youth I recognize a rural subculture, or perhaps more accurately a network of subcultures, whose origin stories may be hazy or unknown to younger generations. Who you are today is far more important than who your parents and grandparents were in their day, but it is of more than personal interest, it is consequential to determining best practices. If most tend to connect such interests to music and TV shows, seemingly obscure matters of ladybug migration patterns quickly fade to black. But as I monitor the bugs in my enclosed raised beds, I’m not pondering about how early Madonna compares with Taylor Swift. I’m wondering about how well ladybugs did locally fifty years ago during the spring weather of that era. It’s a clue to much larger issues, most obviously climate change.

Not just travel patterns and their timing come to mind, but so do particular behaviors. Do they gather in larger clusters in cooler or wetter springs? It turns out that temperature and time of migration very much correlate. And why shouldn’t naked insects seek comfortable living conditions with the same certainty with which they hunt for food? That serves as a reminder that the deeper you look into the familiar rhythms and cycles of the habitats that we occupy the more you see the number and depth of the interrelated moving parts. As any backyard gardener knows, these are always in flux. Ladybugs can fly away, but they only do so for reasons that do not require a sentient brain to weigh in on.

Joan Mitchell, “Ladybug,” 1957, oil on canvas, 6’ 5 7/8” x 9’. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

So I brought the sample packet of ladybugs home. unzipped the entrance to one of the tomato planters, clipped open the mesh bag they came in, and zipped up the enclosure. I reflect on whether they will make their new little world “home” long enough to keep those tomatoes healthy and productive. Soon enough they will resume their perpetual search for that better place.

Bill Lasarow, Publisher and Editor, is a longtime practicing artist, independent publisher, and community activist. He founded or co-founded ArtScene Digest to Visual Art in Southern California (1982); the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles (1987); and Visual Art Source (2009). Most recently he is also the founder and President of The Democracy Chain.
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