Ladybugs doing their duty on a fennel frond in the greenhouse.
On warm autumn days, they come out in droves—dive bombing, climbing, crawling. They bite, they stink, they’re everywhere, and they’re not originally from here. Yes, ladybugs have their charm (in storybooks) but mostly they are a nuisance in the Northwoods. Not too many folks I’ve met actually like them very much.
There is a native bug of a similar appearance, and it’s an herbivore (a voracious one at that). But the type we mostly encounter is the Asian Lady Beetle, imported in 1916 to aid in the aphid infestation that was consuming alfalfa crops nation-wide. Voracious carnivores, these lady beetles will eat almost any other soft-bodied insect they can fit into their mouths. But since we all call these half-orbs of reddish-orange with black spots “ladybugs,” I’ll use that name for this story as well.
Right next to Farmstead Creamery is our aquaponics greenhouse. Within this greenhouse is an ecosystem teaming with life. In four large blue tanks, schools of tilapia fish enjoy a full refreshment of water hourly. The manure-rich water flows downstream to the clarifiers, where beneficial bacteria live. These bacteria colonies break down the fish manure into the components that plants need in order to grow.
The now nutrient-rich water flows to the plants, which grow on rafts in the water, in suspended channels, or in beds of clay media. By the time the water snakes its way through the 5000-gallon system, these roots have acted as a massive bio-filter, returning the water fresh and clean to the fish.
Tilapia, beneficial bacteria, and crop plants live in this symbiotic relationship, which allows us to grow fresh foods all year! But the system requires special precautions, known as “biosecurity” to keep running smoothly.
“Can we go in the greenhouse?” is a common question from visitors at Farmstead. Unfortunately, the answer is no. Many regional lakes contain hemorrhagic fish viruses, which can hide on your skin or your clothing if you’ve been fishing or swimming (a virus that would kill our tilapia), and any number of bugs and plants pests can cling to shoes, pants, etc., hitching their way in. We often change our clothing before working in the greenhouse, and we even have separate shoes for the purpose.
If a hitchhiker makes it inside, these pests can wreak serious havoc in the closed environment of the greenhouse. Even with all the precautions, an occasional stinker does make it through the biosecurity gauntlet. We’ve had our mini-battles with thrips, spider mites, and the like. And while many greenhouses might spray an insecticide to control the issue, these would also kill the fish! Even Organic-approved chemicals would kill the fish too. Guess fish are rather picky.
So what to do when a pesky insect raises its itty-bitty head in defiance? The leading practice (other than removal of an infested plant and thorough cleaning of the area) is to introduce beneficial insects. These are selected insects (often sourced from breeders who specialize in friendly bugs for pest solutions) that will eat the naughty bugs but not harm the plants.
But most of these suppliers are in California, so shipping to Northern Wisconsin gets rather cost prohibitive, and in deep winter it might not be an option at all. So when we had some aphids appear, it was time to find a solution before the problem grew out of hand. That’s when we remembered how effective ladybugs are at snarfing up these tiny, greenish, soft-bodied creatures. www.naturalcontrol.com states that a single ladybug in its one-year lifetime will consume 5,000 aphids. That’s a lot of munching!
Instead of buying a bunch of these little red balls and shipping them in winter across the country, we set about a home-harvest program. There’s a particular sunny window in our house that the ladybugs absolutely love, and with jars at the ready, we’ve been snagging mini ladybug herds and bringing them to the greenhouse. Tap-tap, and another jar is emptied out onto the plants with aphids.
In just a few weeks, the ladybug patrol (added to daily) munches its way along, and the aphid threat has moved from “yikes, this could be really bad” to “got a few over here” to “wow, I can really see we’re making progress.” And all with no chemicals needed.
Now, in the evening when we finally get a quiet moment at home after chores, we’ll be reading a book in front of the wood stove and someone will call out “bug!” and it’s time to grab the jar. Our resident ladybugs have risen in the ranks from being annoying little twerps to colleagues in solving a pest issue in the greenhouse. Who knew they could be so useful on the farm.
I have to imagine it’s a real win-win for the ladybugs too. There can’t be much for them to eat in our house (which may be why they resort to biting us this time of year)! It’s certainly not like being dropped into a land of plenty in a warm, cozy greenhouse. The affected plants certainly appreciate the attention.
So next time you see a ladybug crawling across the window sill, you might have a different opinion about this little critter. And if you keep a garden and aphids make an appearance, get your jar out and start collecting! You never know when you’ll have to call in reinforcements for your very own ladybug patrol. To be honest, they may already be working for you and you don’t even know it. See you down on the farm sometime.
Photo by Laura Berlage.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com.
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