By Mara Certic
In the past few months, scientists have suggested that we are in the middle of one of the biggest periods of mass extinction in the history of the planet, as people all over the world report dwindling numbers of rhinos, gorillas and Hawaiian crows, to name just a few.
Naturalists and specialists are hard at work, doing what they can to preserve the different species, but on Wednesday, July 8, at Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett, children and adults will get the opportunity to be “citizen scientists” in part of a study by Cornell University entomologists called the Lost Ladybug Project.
Ladybugs (not bugs, in actual fact, but beetles from the family Coccinellidae) are generally considered “beneficial insects,” according to Kathy Kennedy of the Peconic Land Trust. Ladybugs feed on tasty aphids and other plant-eating insects, and are even sold in garden stores as a natural alternative to pesticides.
Legend has it that the spotted creatures got their name in Europe during the Middle Ages, when farmers prayed to the Virgin Mary to help them with the swarms of aphids that had taken over their crops. When ladybugs showed up to rid the plants of aphids, the happy farmers referred to the insects as “Our Lady’s beetles,” and the name stuck.
But for the past few decades, ladybug numbers around the country have been declining, with very common varieties becoming increasingly rare. In fact, the official insect of the State of New York, the nine-spotted ladybug, was considered regionally extinct and had not been seen in the Empire State for 29 years before one was found on Quail Hill in conjunction with the Lost Ladybug Project just a few years ago.
“It goes back at least four or five years,” Ms. Kennedy said over the phone this week. “We had heard about the Lost Ladybug Project run by Cornell and thought it would be fun to do at Quail Hill Farm as one of the educational programs,” she said.
The first year that they ran the program, there were no scientists from Cornell onsite at Quail Hill to identify the different ladybugs, and so it wasn’t until they sent photos up to the entomologists that it was confirmed they had in fact found the only known nine-spotted ladybug in the state. The scientists then came down to Quail Hill where they “found a whole bunch more,” Ms. Kennedy explained.
“We are the only ones who have a colony of the nine-spotted bug,” she said. “We had no idea and we don’t know why. We’re not the only farm in the area that is using organic practices. We have been around for a really long time, so I don’t know if longevity has anything to do with it. But really, we just don’t know.”
Every year since then, twice a summer, Dr. Leslie Allee comes down from Ithaca to help lead the Lost Ladybug Project at Quail Hill. “They’re looking for any type of ladybug,” Ms. Kennedy explained, “Because the varieties are changing.”
The Lost Ladybug Project will be taking place at Quail Hill on Wednesday, July 8, from 10 a.m. to 12 noon. Attendees should meet at the farm stand on Deep Lane, where they will be given a jar to capture the ladybugs, which are then identified and noted by scientists onsite, and eventually put into a national database. For more information visit lostladybug.org.