Searching for ‘Lost’ Ladybugs

BY Tom Bearden  July 12, 2011 at 4:03 PM EDT


Flickr @martincron

Gail Starr has ladybugs in her ears.

Not actual, live, ladybugs, but rather ladybug earrings. She has multiple pairs, many of them gifts from her students. She teaches third grade at Springs Ranch Elementary School, and regularly takes her students on field trips to find ladybugs.

Finding the bugs is Starr’s hobby and her passion. She is a volunteer spotter for a national research study called “The Lost Ladybug Project.”

Recently, Starr gathered together a group of her current and former students at Palmer Park in Colorado Springs, Colo., where they collected hundreds of ladybugs from the spiny yucca plants that dot the area. Starr and her helpers briefly placed the bugs in ice chests to cool them down and keep them from hopping around too much as Starr photographed each specimen. Later she uploaded the images to project headquarters at Cornell University in New York.

Dr. John Losey, an associate professor in the entomology department at Cornell University, is the director of the National Science Foundation*-funded project. He says Starr is one of the most prolific of the 4,000 or so ladybug spotters all over the country who contribute images to the program. He told the NewsHour that scientists first noticed a dramatic decline of several native ladybugs species in the late 1970s, coupled with the growth of non-native species.

Losey said this is a matter of considerable interest, because ladybugs are fierce predators that eat insects that feed on food crops. The problem was that there wasn’t enough money to undertake a national survey to find out why some species were disappearing. So they turned to “citizen scientists,” volunteers who have now submitted more than 11,000 digital images of what they’ve found. Losey said the pictures are one of the unique features of the project, because if anyone questions whether a specific kind of ladybug was found in a particular location, there is an actual image to back it up.

You can meet Gail Starr, some of her students, and Dr. Losey in the story that photographer Brian Gill and I have prepared on Tuesday’s NewsHour.

*For the record, the National Science Foundation is an underwriter of the NewsHour.