Lovely Lady (bug)
● By Lennie Copeland
Ono’s Resident Ladybug Whisperers
Rob Hunt and Susie Bewley walk into their local pub, the Ono Store & Café, speckled with tiny, red, black-spotted ladybugs. The little critters crawl on Hunt’s sweater and become tangled in Bewley’s hair. Bewley says wryly, “They come with the trade.”
Hunt and Bewley are ladybug whisperers. To look at them, you would never guess what they do for a living. Bewley is a five-foot-six beauty with long, dark hair and a healthy tan. Hunt is a swarthy, handsome devil with curly black hair and long lashes over nearly black eyes. Both in their mid-40s, they exude the vim and vigor of outdoorsy types 10 years younger. They light up when they describe their business, Nature’s Way.
Hunt makes it sound easy. He is all smiles as he describes finding a nest. “Often, the ladybugs are easily visible, being swarming, seething masses up to 35 feet long and 10 feet wide, spread across the landscape like a bright red carpet.” Bewley explains, “Harvesting them is the tricky part. The ladybugs cluster around stems and branches of oak, manzanita and pine.” They are gathered by the bucketload into large cotton bags. And of course, the heavy bags must be handled gently. The hike back to their truck can be many sweltering miles through thick brush, over rocky terrain and sometimes up mountainsides.
The ladybug harvest generally begins in the middle of June and continues to mid-February. Through the winter, Hunt and Bewley focus on the preservation of their stock, storing the ladybugs in cotton bags on trays in the numerous refrigerators that populate the back of their house. Because the ladybug is reaped in the wild rather than bred at an insect farm, the “crop” is highly dependent on the prevailing weather. Normally the ladybugs lay their eggs in the valley in spring, then sometime in June they migrate back up the mountain. Hunt says, “The ladybugs are like salmon. They come back year after year.” Bewley adds, “We have about 70 favorite spots where we are sure to find nests.”
Nature’s Way does little marketing, but has been successful because gardeners are more and more interested in using them: They are a natural, effective pest control. Ladybugs eat the insects that eat plants, such as aphids, spider mites, scale, white fly, mealy bugs, leaf hoppers and even plant-eating worms. They devour the pests until they are gone, then feed on new pests as they arrive in the garden. Meanwhile, they lay small clusters of eggs, and the hatching ladybug larvae immediately begin feeding on the unwanted insects. In its one-year life span, one ladybug may eat 5,000 aphids and other pests. Unlike some other beneficial insects, ladybugs don’t eat plants. And they are amazingly resilient. They have few predators: their red and black spots are nature’s warning signal that declares, “I don’t taste good.”
Base camp is Hunt and Bewley’s home in Ono. This is where the whispering comes in: tender loving care of the catch. Once the ladybugs are brought home, they are poured into 4-by-8 crawl boxes in a special room maintained at about 40 to 50 degrees, with the fan always whirling. It is an impressive spectacle: crawl boxes swarming with ladybugs several inches deep and migrating toward branches of pine that the caretakers have kindly provided to them. Gobs of ladybugs are scooped into cotton bags, placed into protective crates and once again refrigerated until they are packaged for delivery.
These containers are sold to hardware and gardening stores and nurseries. Customers have little more to do than release the ladybugs in their gardens; however, the manner in which the ladybugs are dispersed is the key to their success in pest control. The garden should be lightly watered first. The ladybugs should be freed from the container in the cool of the evening when they are not likely to fly away. They need to be deposited in small bunches at the base of plants where there is food, such as an aphid problem.
In the Redding area, Nature’s Way ladybugs are available at Northern Roots, Ace Hardware, Bare Roots, Garden Connections, HydroKing, Norcal and Creekside Nursery in Redding. They are also sold at garden shops and hardware stores in Anderson, Red Bluff, Orland and Chico.