When one thinks of ladybugs or ladybirds as the British like to call them, the images that come to mind are those of a super cute insect that can barely hop, leave alone zoom at high speeds and soaring heights. Turns out that the aphid lovers that are considered by many as a sign of good luck, have been hiding this unexpected talent from us, all this time.
Their surprising secret was discovered by a team of researchers led by Dr. Lori Lawson Handly, a Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Hull. Their research, the results of which were published in the December edition of the scientific journal PLoS ONE, was based on two studies.
The first involved analyzing recorded data from radar signals on the flight patterns of two of the most populous ladybug species in Britain - the Seven Spot and the Harlequin. Collected for over a decade by Rothamsted Research, a UK based agricultural research institute, it comprised of 9,000 flights, providing the scientists with enough information to reach conclusive results.
What they discovered was that though the average ladybirds flew at altitudes of between 500 - 1,600 feet and at speeds close to 20 miles per hour, there were some that soared as high 3,600 feet and flew a speedy quick 37 miles per hour. The researchers noticed that the ladybugs that attained the higher altitude were also the ones that were the fastest, leading them to conclude that their speed was buoyed by wind currents.
Though this is certainly impressive, what is even more is that the tiny bugs can stay in air for long periods of time. This finding was a result of the second experiment the team conducted - This time in the laboratory with a few specimens of the insects inside a Plexiglass box. Again, while the average time was 37 minutes, there were some ladybirds that stayed airborne for as long as 2 hours. This was surprising even to the researchers that had expected the insect's average airborne time to be closer to 15 minutes. Dr. Handley says that this data unveiled that if the little insects were traveling at their maximum speed of 37 miles per hour and stayed airborne for the entire two hours, they could cover as much as 75 miles at a stretch. Of course, nobody is sure if ladybugs ever do that, but they certainly have the potential to!
The tiny insects do have a kryptonite - the cold. They lose their ability to fly in altitudes where the temperature is below 53°F. When they hit this threshold, the insects descend until they get to warmer air, before returning to flight again.
Dr. Handly and her team hope to use the information gathered from their studies to investigate further about invasive ladybug species, like the Harlequin, which was exported from Asia to Europe and North America to help control aphid and scale insects.
Though they may all look similar there are over 5,000 known species of ladybugs. The tiny creatures that can have a lifespan of between one to two years, attack aphids by laying several hundreds of eggs on plants that have become victim to the parasites. With each larva consuming over 5,000 aphids during its 3-6 week-long larval stage, they are able to rapidly restore the plant's health. Also, while there are male and female ladybugs, they all look the same to the untrained eye. Only an entomologist or another ladybug can tell the difference!
Resources: Dailymail.co.uk, Telegraph.co.uk, dailykros.com