Lefty’s Soap Box: Aphids and Ladybugs (March 1996)

Note: Lefty’s Soap Box, a gardening column by former Canyon Echo editor Phil Hall, ran each month throughout the 1990s.

By Phil Hall

“Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home. Your house is on fire, and your children are alone.”

Aphids are nasty little critters. Their joy is ganging up on the flowers of chiles and sucking all of the life out of them. Outdoors, at least in Bluff, aphids are seldom a problem. Sometimes they cluster on the flowers of the Siberian peas, but they are easily sprayed off with a hose, or the wind blows them off, or the ladybugs get them.

Ladybugs love to eat aphids, those fat, juicy, protein-rich, succulent bodies full of moisture and life. Ladybugs are humorous without pretense, colorful without affectation. Efficient as vacuum cleaners.

Companies sell ladybugs, along with varieties of worms, hedge clippers and well-tempered manure. The ladybugs come imprisoned in a small, cotton bag inside a cardboard box. The instructions tell you that if you are not going to use them immediately to put them in the refrigerator.

Linda’s favorite method is to release them over several days. When you open the bag they immediately rush out, like a thousand tiny, spotted Volkswagens, bright and shiny, zooming out the factory doors. They rush up your arms, their little feet making the most ludicrous tickling sensations on your hands and arms. Freedom! They run like their very lives depend on it, which I suppose in a sense they do.

Ladybug and aphid. Photo by James Mann / Wikimedia Commons.

Linda spreads them all around the greenhouse, introducing them to the areas most heavily-infested with aphids. Then she sprays water on all of the plants. The ladybugs, trans planted as they are all the way from Ohio and suddenly thrust into a desert environment, are thirsty little buggers.

Possessed by their own kind of logic, ladybugs follow migrations that humans find difficult to fathom. Walking, at least indoors, is their favorite form of locomotion. They can fly, but they seldom do when they are in the house or the greenhouse. Even though we try to keep the greenhouse door closed, ladybugs show up everywhere. Suddenly, there is one on the dining room table, or rummaging around in the silverware drawer, or on the end of my nose. One morning, as I prepared to squeeze the toothpaste onto my tooth brush, I looked down and found one of our spotted friends frolicking among the bristles.

When we find them vagabonding around the house we patiently take them back out to the greenhouse and introduce them to our favorite plants, hopeful that the ladybugs might bless them somehow with their tiny attentions.

After a week or so, you will notice them mating, like two little cars that just had an accident in the downtown traffic. After a little more time elapses you start to notice their larvae, tiny salamander-like black things with orange spots on their backs and voracious appetites.

Being unfamiliar with the finer points of ladybug anatomy, logic, and locomotion, I find them as incomprehensible and intriguing as the stars. But then again, ladybugs were not put on this earth that I might understand them. They came here for a higher purpose, and the fact that I can’t glean the essence of it is not their fault.

I try to imagine the kind of people who study ladybugs, hunkered down in their laboratories counting their spots, examining the shades of colors, perusing their undersides. Perhaps I too could learn about their origin, their thought processes, their dreams. Curious things, ladybugs. They stir some emotion deep within me. Perhaps a sense of wonder that a thing so tiny could save the lives of my chiles.

–Read more from the Canyon Echo archive.