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Ladybugs swarm over homes and buildings

Saturday, October 20, 2001

By Rafal Geremek, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It's not a plague. After all, ladybugs, a.k.a. ladybirds and lady beetles, are "good bugs."

But this year, there have been great, swarming armies of them -- at least until this week's cold snap sent many of them into hiding.

"They are on the wall, all over the garage, on the porch, on tomato plants, on a door," said Laurie Gonda, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Dorseyville Middle School, when she called to complain about the bugs on Sunday.

"I can't use the front door, because I don't want them to come into my house," she said. "On Saturday, I removed at least 150 of them from my front door."

By yesterday, the ladybug hordes had pretty much disappeared from her home.

Gonda's experience has been a common one in the region, thanks to an ever expanding invasion of the beetles from the South. As the fall weather has set in, many of the beetles have moved inside people's homes and settled into cracks and crevices in the walls. It's common for ladybugs to search in groups for warm spots to spend the winter, scientists say.

The reason for the swarms this year is that the region is seeing a different species of ladybug than it normally does.

The orange, often spotted ladybugs that are in such abundance are an Asian species that was imported into the United States from Japan in the late 1970s to fight aphids, scales, psyllids and other crop- and tree-eating pests.

John Rawlins, an insect specialist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, said the Asian beetles -- Harmonia axyridis -- are also native to northeastern China and Korea.

The beetles, first released in the United States in Louisiana and Mississippi, "did the job [against pests] very well," Rawlins said, swallowing insect pests on farms, in gardens and in zoos.

In 1994 and 1995, though, there was a sudden explosion in the Asian ladybug population, and they spread rapidly to Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.

They also began to push a little farther north every year, and arrived in the Pittsburgh region two to three years ago.

This year's swarm is only the beginning of an influx for our region, Rawlins believes.

"They'll come in larger numbers next year, and 2003 may be the peak of their invasion in this area," Rawlins said. "But this is only a conjecture by scientists, based on the fact that all kinds of species have limits on their expansion."

Aside from being a nuisance, the ladybugs don't present any threat. They don't chew or bore holes in walls or eat carpets or furniture. They don't lay eggs in homes.

As Gonda put it, "they are annoying. They drive the cat completely crazy. And sometimes you can smell a stink, like old potatoes."

The odor comes from a yellow fluid the bugs secrete when they are agitated or have been killed. The fluid can stain walls or fabric.

The only problem Rawlins sees with the invasion is that the Asian ladybugs may hurt the native ladybug species as they compete for the same food supplies.

For the less sensitive people who are bothered by the bugs, Rawlins said a regular vacuum cleaner can get rid of them.

Gonda said she tried that, as well as squirting them off her home with a hose.

For those feeling more compassionate, Rawlins said they could try using a vacuum without a bag inside, and then opening the vacuum and dumping the captured ladybugs outdoors.

Rawlins said he saves the ladybugs he finds because he knows how useful they are.

They even can help homeowners who don't have plants to protect.

"Ladybirds are doing you a favor because they are secret agents assigned the task of discovering if there are any holes in your house," he said. "If the 'good bugs' can come in, it means that 'bad bugs' also are able to get into your house."

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