A band of volunteers across Ohio has been hoisting sticky traps and poring over identification guides in an effort to save some of the tiniest guardians of our gardens.
Those volunteers are part of the Buckeye Lady Beetle Blitz, a citizen-science project that is collecting data about lady beetles throughout the state. The intention is to gauge the status of 14 species of the insect and determine whether some of those species are in trouble — and if so, why.
The research is important because lady beetles, also called ladybugs or ladybirds, are beneficial predators that feed on plant pests such as aphids.
''They really provide a great deal of pest control,'' said Mary Gardiner, the project's leader and an entomologist at Ohio State University's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster Township.
In recent decades, populations of several types of native lady beetles have shown alarming declines, Gardiner said.
Ohio is home to both native lady beetles and exotic species that were brought here from other parts of the world.
The study focuses on 10 native and four exotic species that are thought to be common in Ohio. Gardiner hopes the research will determine whether they still are and to what extent, and provide an early warning if some types are in decline.
Gardiner's project, which began this year, is a sort of mini-census that counts beetles and determines how they're distributed in different areas and among various types of landscapes. She's hoping to learn how the features of various habitats affect beetles.
To do that, she recruited 188 volunteers across the state, Ohio first lady Frances Strickland among them. They were asked to collect insects on their property twice during the summer, once in June and once in August.
During each weeklong testing period, each volunteer put up a sticky trap in either a food or flower garden. At the end of the week, the volunteer was to identify and count the lady beetles he or she found and mail the trap back to Gardiner's laboratory for further analysis.
Over the winter, Gardiner's research team will use satellite images to pinpoint each trap and look at the habitat within a two-mile radius. For example,
researchers will identify whether the trap is in a rural, suburban or urban area and look at the kinds of plants that grow in the vicinity in hopes of determining how those factors affect the beetle populations.
West Akron resident Karen Edgington learned of the project through her involvement in the Ohio State University Extension master gardener program and eagerly joined in. That was even before her daughter, Hilary, a senior biology student at the College of Wooster, landed a summer job working with Gardiner on the project.
The endeavor fits with Edgington's specialization in backyards and localized food and her interest in integrated pest management — the use of beneficial bugs and other natural means to control pests.
''I think it's important to learn about the beneficials as much as about the pests,'' she said, and to use those beneficial insects instead of chemical insecticides as much as possible.
Last week, a bright yellow, glue-covered card posted among the sedum, astilbe and rudbeckia in Edgington's backyard flower bed was coated with bug bodies, but so far, no lady beetles. That's not surprising, Gardiner said: Only 183 lady beetles were found among the 168 traps returned after the June collection.
That's largely due to the design of the study. It seeks to gather enough data to determine the insects' relative abundance in various landscapes while killing as few of them as possible, she said.
The trap catches other bugs besides lady beetles, but even those insects do not die in vain. They're identified and counted at the lab to see what kinds of pests and beneficial insects are found in Ohio gardens.
And the lady beetles that are trapped do double duty. After Gardiner's team counts them, they're used in a separate genetic study that examines the state of their populations in Ohio.
''So quite a bit of research comes out of the program,'' she said.
Using citizen volunteers broadens the reach of Gardiner's research. It was important that the insects be collected during the same time periods, she explained, and her research team alone wouldn't have been able to manage more than 150 traps all over the state.
Some of the results of the June collection have been encouraging, particularly the number of native orange-spotted beetles that were found. On the other hand, the study found only one convergent lady beetle, a red beetle with black spots that is the state insect of Ohio. It's been thought to be in decline in neighboring states, Gardiner said.
Most abundant was the multicolored Asian lady beetle, a non-native species that can be a pest to homeowners when it makes its way into houses in cold weather.
Lady beetles beneficial
While all lady beetles are considered beneficial because they kill pests, the increase in exotic species could be contributing to the decline of their native cousins, Gardiner said. It's not yet known why or how, she said, nor do scientists know exactly how the resulting imbalance might affect the environment. Those are areas of research that might be aided by her study.
Gardiner will repeat the collections next summer and hopes to continue it further in the future. In the meantime, she said the volunteers' response has been heartening.
''People want to do science,'' she said. ''Thinking green and doing things to help the environment is something a lot of people want to do these days.''
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or email@example.com.