Years ago, Daniel and I made friends with this guy named Vinnie who lived in one of the apartments over the garages behind the cluster of rowhouses where we were living at the time. His apartment was small and shabby, but he’d chosen it because it had a large yard, and he loved gardening. In the winter, he brought a lot of his plants indoors in pots.
Unfortunately, one winter his plants became infested with aphids and scale insects simultaneously. Vinnie tried spraying them with various homemade concoctions, but nothing was working well enough, and the plants were dying. Somehow a farm-supply catalog had made its way into his urban home, and he noticed that the catalog said ladybugs would eat these pests. You could buy them by the pint.
Vinnie is a person who stubbornly resists The System: He likes to work informally as a landscaper rather than having a “real job,” he’s often lived without a telephone or a bank account, and he’s never had a credit card. That’s why he asked me to order his ladybugs from the catalog. I used my phone, my credit card, and my address, figuring I would take the bugs to Vinnie when they arrived.
A week or so later, I came home from work, and my housemate said, “You got a package. Why is it labeled LIVESTOCK? It’s not very big.” The package was a small wooden crate containing a canvas sack. When I held it up to my ear, I could hear tiny moving noises. I explained to my housemate, and we speculated about how many ladybugs are in a pint–that crate might be small by human standards, but it was very much larger than a ladybug; there must be hundreds in there or thousands….
After dinner, I took the crate up to Vinnie’s place. He was excited. He immediately got some tools to pry open the crate. Then he lifted out the bag, ignoring some folded papers that were underneath it in the crate. One end of the bag was bunched together and secured with a twist-tie.
Naturally, Vinnie untwisted the twist-tie to take a look at his new beneficial insects.
Instantly, the room was filled with ladybugs! They marched out of the bag and poured down Vinnie’s arms. They flew up in a cloud and landed on our faces and hair. Some of them landed on his kitchen table–where he had been eating–and got ketchup on their wings and buzzed it off, splattering everything.
AAAUUGGHHH!!! Vinnie desperately tried to poke the ladybugs back into the bag and twist it shut, yelping, “I don’t want to crush a single one!” Finally getting the exodus under control, he sat back, panting, noticed the paper in the bottom of the crate, and muttered, “Maybe we oughta read the instructions.”
The paper directed us to place the bag in the refrigerator for an hour so that the ladybugs would go into a dormant state. They could then be dispensed, “One teaspoonful per large plant, every two days until pests are controlled.” Glaring at the ketchup tracks on the walls and ceiling, grumbling, “Who’re they calling pests?”, Vinnie put the ladybugs in the fridge.
Of course his housemate came in for a beer about ten seconds later and said, “Hey, what’s this livestock in our fridge?”–eliciting cries of, “Don’t open that!!” He then demanded, “Why’s there ladybugs everywhere?” Vinnie explained the answer to both questions. His housemate shrugged, “Whatever, man,” and went back to watch TV.
Thinking it over, we realized that the ladybugs must have gotten very restless during their journey. They seemed to be packed into that bag as tightly as possible, kicking each other in the head, and did they even have food? (We later found some mulchy stuff in the bag which was presumably their food. But if you were a ladybug who wasn’t packed right next to the food, you probably spent most of the journey trying to push through the crowd to get some food.) We couldn’t blame them for being eager to get out of there. Should’ve read the instructions.
When we got out the bag again later, we couldn’t hear any movement inside. Vinnie very cautiously opened the twist-tie and used a plastic spoon to dispense sleepy ladybugs into the plant pots. He put the rest back into the refrigerator.
The next time I visited Vinnie, a few days later, harmony was restored to his apartment ecosystem. Ladybugs were chowing down on aphids and scale insects–and staying out of the ketchup. You’d occasionally notice a ladybug on the arm of a chair or something, but they weren’t swarming around problematically. The plants were saved!
I’ve since read that it’s not such a great idea to buy ladybugs from outside your local area because they may introduce new diseases or parasites to your local beneficial insects. That’s a good point. But the alternative, attracting ladybugs from the wild, only works in the summertime. If you desperately need indoor pest control in the winter–and you’re willing to live with ladybugs in your home–buying them might make sense.
Just make sure you read the instructions before you open the package.
I wrote this story (nearly 20 years after it happened) after worrying through an unusually cool spring when earthworms did not appear in my compost bins as they always had before–just when I was writing a series of articles about composting! I wondered: If the worms never come back, should I buy worms to jump-start my local population? Looks like the answer is no; I should take steps to attract earthworms from the wild. I’ve been doing that already, and now that the weather is finally warmer, my composting companions are coming back!
Read all about it–and about my adventures gardening on the side of a cliff!–in my article at Kitchen Stewardship.