© Fred First 2007 / Floyd Press / Road Less Traveled / 4 October
In these cooler days of autumn, while we look forward to bringing our lives indoors to the comfort of our warm homes, thousands upon thousand of house guests are planning to visit us. Even now they are packing their bags and heading home to your place for the winter and you might as well know them by name. They are called the Multicolored Asian Lady Beetle or MALB for short. Highly variable in their color and number of spots, they are also sometimes referred to as Halloween Beetles or Harlequin Lady Beetles, or in our house simply, the (expletive deleted) Ladybugs.
No respecter of persons, swarming masses of Harmonia axyridis (get a load of the species name—what WAS the taxonomist thinking!) will in October descend upon the godly and the ungodly, the air tight and the loosely constructed alike. You WILL within the month have a house full of these little stinkers, so steel yourselves, good neighbors.
When will they come? Most likely on the second day after temperatures are greater the 65 degrees just following a dramatic drop in temperature, usually to near freezing. So. You were warned.
In one study, the average type of house experiencing an MALB infestation problem was 73 years old, two-story, wood or vinyl sided and had lots of trees on at least three sides of the house. Hello. That’s where I live exactly!
Heck of it is, these critters don’t belong in this country at all. Like the infernal Starling and irrepressible Kudzu—just to name a few other aliens—they too were brought here on purpose, if you can believe that! Considerable uncertainty lies in exactly who is to blame and precisely when, as there have been many intentional and accidental releases going back to at least 1916.
Only in the last 15 years or so have these insects have managed to survive and spread, and in so doing, they have produced some success toward their original and intended purpose: to control aphids in agricultural and landscape environments. But they also out-feed and even eat up other native lady beetles. So once again, nature gives with one hand, and takes away with the other, and significantly in the “take” column, your walls and mine will soon be crawling with orange and black spots.
In our first encounter with them en masse in 1999 as we restored our old house on Goose Creek, I quickly learned that swatting these crawling freckles as they huddled in the corners on the south and west walls was NOT the control measure of choice. Like all lady beetles, when startled or agitated, they “reflex-bleed” an odiferous yellow-staining fluid from their leg joints. However, the “blood” of the MALBs contains a much higher concentration of the off-putting defense chemical than most lady beetles. They swarm. They bite. They stink. What’s not to love?
So our removal method of choice is to suck them up with the wand of the vacuum cleaner. Out loud, I tally each one with some satisfaction as they disappear into the nozzle. I take no small pleasure in seeing a few hundred contained finally inside the clear canister. An idea I haven’t tried, but am poised and ready: stuff a pantyhose leg down the vacuum wand and secure with a rubber band. The trappings of the vacuum will be contained in the nylon net. I suggest other fates than capture and release.
The fellow who painted this old place for us was the first to tell me that these polka-dotted insects could inflict pain (as he swatted them with a wet paintbrush!) They don’t bite in a defensive sort of way, but they are inclined to sample the back of your neck just in case you might be some mutant kind of aphid, and therefore edible. About 30% of house-dwelling MALBs are inclined to bite, I read, and on the hands of certain college-student volunteers, they continued to chew for up to 30 minutes!
Fortunately, these multicolored beetles don’t carry any disease organisms, so far as I can tell. However, like their distant relatives the mites, a person can develop an allergic reaction to their inhaled “dust” once it is ground up to a fine powder in your carpets. This can result in a kind of eye irritation as well as an asthma-like condition—injury to insult.
And finally, I have a personal theory about MALB that I’ll share with you, and it is this: they come and go in a kind of spontaneous generation and death. Vacuum ten of them out of the corner of the window; look away briefly, and presto! Five more have appeared at the very edge of your peripheral vision and out of thin air! Likewise, while their little corpses accumulate all over your carpet, you’ll never see one actually in the act of dying. Except…
A favorite winter pass-time: wait for the heat from the woodstove to overcome a flying MALB. It falls down on the hot metal stove upside-down and does a little spinning break-dance sort of thing as it extends its underwings and gives up the ghost.
On the short, bleak days of mid-winter, this will be about the most exciting thing happening in this old house on Goose Creek. We have to take our entertainment where we find it.