Do you sometimes wish ladybugs would find your garden as easily as aphids do?
It’s not impossible, as long as you know the secrets to getting them and keeping them there: food.
Whether you’re trying to attract them naturally or releasing them in your backyard, it all comes down to making sure they have a food source so they stick around and see what else you have for them to eat.
What to know about ladybugs
Ladybugs (also known as ladybirds or lady beetles, or “ladies who lunch,” as I like to call them) are the hardworking (and hungry!) army you definitely want to have in the garden.
Despite their colloquial name, ladybugs aren’t true bugs; they’re beetles (Coccinellidae) and about 5,000 species exist in the world. Surprisingly, a few ladybugs prey not on plant-eaters, but on plants.
But in general, ladybugs are the good bugs, and they eat “bad” bugs like aphids, spider mites, and scale insects.
(I put “bad” in quotes because all insects have important roles in the ecosystem—even if that means being food for predators—but these ones in particular are considered pests that can weaken or destroy plants, especially vegetables.)
There’s even a fungus-eating ladybug, Illeis galbula, that eats powdery mildew—so if you have plants like zucchini and pumpkins that are prone to powdery mildew every year, it’s yet another reason you want to keep these beneficial insects around.
A ladybug is an efficient form of biological pest control for your garden. It can consume up to 5,000 aphids in its lifetime, and its appetite begins in the larval stage.
Ladybugs lay 600 to 700 eggs in batches of 40 to 50, all in small clusters on the undersides of leaves, and they like to lay near aphid colonies (their primary food source). The eggs hatch in 4 to 10 days, and the larvae immediately begin eating the pests.
With their voracious appetites, ladybug larvae can eat up to 600 aphids each before they pupate. Once they become adults, they consume one-tenth as much, about 60 aphids per day. When all food supplies are short, ladybugs become cannibalistic.
Yep, those cute and colorful bugs that your kids love to find are actually ruthless cannibals. The larvae of several varieties of ladybugs won’t hesitate to eat ladybug eggs that are yet to hatch (basically, their siblings). Eat or be eaten, I suppose.
But for good reason: Research has found that ladybug larvae that eat unhatched family members develop faster than non-cannibal larvae, and are more likely to survive to adulthood.
Ladybugs have a lifespan of 1 to 2 years (depending on temperature, humidity, and food supply), mating every 2 to 3 days and producing eggs as long as they’ve been feeding for several weeks.
That last sentence is key.
For ladybugs to be an effective method of pest control, they have to continually lay eggs and start the next generation of larvae. And they can’t do that if they fly away from your garden.
By nature, ladybugs are migratory. They are in constant search of food and when their supply runs out, they fly to the next place.
Once the weather turns colder, ladybugs prefer to shelter and hibernate and often make their home in the cracks of trees, on the wood of buildings, or under woody piles of mulch. They can’t fly if temperatures dip below 55°F, and there are simple tricks for attracting ladybugs and encouraging them to hang around.
3 secrets to attracting ladybugs to your garden and getting them to stay
Diversity is crucial when creating habitat and providing food for not only ladybugs, but other bugs that might not be viewed so favorably.
Think of your yard as a mini ecosystem of its own. If it’s devoid of pests, there’s less of a reason for ladybugs (and other beneficial creatures, like ground beetles, spiders, lizards, lacewings, and hoverflies) to come around at all.
The trick is maintaining balance so there are plenty of aphids and other prey for their predators to consume, but not so many that they get out of control in your garden.
And that brings us to the first thing you need to know about attracting ladybugs…
Secret #1: Don’t get rid of all the bad bugs
While it might sound counterintuitive to let the bad bugs stay, a few here and there won’t do your plants any harm. Resist the urge to kill aphids as soon as you spot them on your plants.
If you immediately reach for a pesticide (especially in early spring when fewer food sources are available), lady beetles won’t have any incentive to stay—even if you buy and release them. Not to mention, many commercial pesticides leave residue on plants that are harmful to other beneficial bugs (including bees) and aren’t wise to spray on plants you might eat.
If you must use any kind of chemical control, opt for insecticidal soap or horticultural oils, which do less damage to lady beetles.
But a better idea is to wait for the beetles to show up. If they’re already in your garden, they’ll find your pest problem. Lady beetles stay for the duration of a predator/prey cycle, so as long as there’s a sustainable source of food around, a good portion of the population will remain (and not fly off to greener pastures).
So how can you make sure those lady beetles got the invite to your garden? That brings us to our second trick…
Secret #2: Grow the right plants
Besides pests, ladybugs also feed on nectar and pollen. They prefer small flowers, flat open petals, and umbellifers (umbrella- or disc-shaped flowers) that they can land on and crawl over easily. Many of the same flowers you’d grow for bees and butterflies are the ones ladybugs love too.
In particular, ladybugs are attracted to these flowers:
- Queen Anne’s lace
Secret #3: Provide a safe habitat
You can influence ladybirds to stay in the area by providing a safe location for them to overwinter. An example of this is an “insect hotel” or bug hotel, set up in an area that gets southern exposure for the best warmth.
You can create a simple, rustic insect hotel by piling a handful of pinecones together in a lightweight net (like the mesh bags that onions and garlic are stored in—save them on your next few trips to the grocery store) and mounting the habitat in a sunny spot (the higher the better) that’s protected from wind and rain, and placed far enough away from bird feeders and bird houses.
Or, you can stuff pinecones or other natural elements (like reeds, pieces of coarse bark, and dried thistle heads—objects that make good hiding spots for bugs) into a small wooden enclosure, then cover the entrance with wire mesh to keep out birds and squirrels.
Make sure you keep the enclosure small and simple. There are many DIY tutorials for fancy-looking “bug condominiums” online, but these are more of a detriment than a benefit because they attract too many different types of insects and make it easier for diseases to spread and wipe out all your overwintering guests.
Ladybirds often release a pheromone when they find a nice place to land, so it should help with attracting more ladybirds to your habitat.
You can also buy a ready-made ladybug house to hang from a tree or roof eave; just add pinecones or rough pieces of bark that have lots of cavities for ladybugs to shelter in.
Another option (and my favorite of the lazy gardening philosophies I practice) is to let your old foliage stand over winter.
The dried flower heads, hollow stems, and dead leaves on the ground all provide excellent shelter for insects, so don’t cut them back or prune your plants until spring (before new growth emerges, but ideally after any hibernating insects wake up).
Like all garden creatures, ladybirds also need a clean source of water. It’s good practice to leave shallow dishes of water around the yard (a drip tray or plant saucer works great for this). Add a few small stones that stick out of the water a bit, so insects have a safe place to land and drink (with no risk of drowning).
Should you buy ladybugs?
Sometimes, if you’d rather not wait for ladybugs to appear in your garden, it’s easier and faster to simply purchase them. Many garden centers and online suppliers sell live ladybugs that you can bring home and release into your yard.
But before you pay for that container of ladybugs, you should know the downsides of this seemingly innocuous practice.
Legal ladybug harvesting is a gray area
First, all commercial ladybugs are collected in the wild—a questionable trade complicated by lack of permitting, which means you’re probably (and innocently) buying poached ladybugs.
The most common collection sites in North America are on federal forest land in California. In the fall, they migrate to higher elevations. Winds carry them into the Sierra Nevada foothills, where they drop like rain into the forests and gather at the base of trees to hibernate.
This makes it easy for ladybug hunters to harvest handfuls of ladybugs at a time; a good hunter can make $1,000 to $2,000 a day with his catch.
With how lucrative and unregulated the business is—plus skyrocketing demand from organic home growers—it’s unknown what kind of environmental impact collecting ladybugs in the wild has in the long run.
Think of it this way: What if somebody came and collected all the native bees in your community for shipment across the country?
Commercial ladybugs might not be native to your area
The most common ladybugs sold commercially are the convergent lady beetle (Hippodamia convergens), which is native to most of North America, and the Asian lady beetle (Harmonia axyridis), which is not native. Reputable suppliers will specify the species being sold, but some vendors (like those on Amazon) might not have this information.
Another issue: store-bought ladybugs might have hitchhikers. There’s no way to know if harvested ladybugs could introduce new issues (like parasites and diseases) to your garden and local insect populations.
Ladybugs decline quickly if not handled properly
Live ladybugs need to be refrigerated until they’re released. Unfortunately, many garden centers display them at room temperature for hours at a time, where they’re often dehydrated.
If ladybugs aren’t given adequate water while they’re held in storage, chances are they won’t survive. So if you decide to buy ladybugs, try to buy them from a primary supplier (one who sources the beetles directly from the harvesters), as those ladybugs will usually be healthier than the ones held in stores for several weeks.
It takes more ladybugs than you think to control aphids
Ladybugs love to eat—the more the better. If all you have are a few plants infested with aphids, your newly released ladybugs will devour them all in a matter of a couple days before moving on to a different yard in search of food.
The convergent lady beetle (the kind usually sold in stores) feeds almost entirely on aphids, and won’t remain on plants with low aphid populations. That means it takes large numbers of commercial ladybugs to effectively control an aphid invasion in a home garden.
Most containers you buy have only enough ladybugs to treat a few small plants or one shrub. For a heavily infested shrub, you would need at least two applications of 1,500 ladybugs each, spaced a week apart to ensure some of them stay.
Ladybugs are most effective when used indoors
Now that you know these beetles love to fly, it’s no surprise that the best way to make them stay is to release them inside a greenhouse.
Some of them may still escape, but your time, money, and efforts will go farther if you’re trying to control pests in an indoor environment.
How to release ladybugs in the backyard
If you’re still set on purchasing ladybugs, you need to release them properly to get the most benefit out of them.
Most residential backyards can’t support the 1,000 or more ladybugs you just brought home, so any natural existing food sources are quickly depleted. Research has found that 95 percent of released ladybugs fly away within 48 hours, and the rest are gone in 4 or 5 days.
To improve the chances of those ladybugs hanging around:
- Release ladybugs at dusk or in the early evening. They’ll fly away almost immediately if released during the heat of the day or where the sun is shining.
- Spray a fine mist of water on your plants before release. Giving the beetles a drink may keep them around longer, as they’re likely parched from their journey.
- Have ladybug food ready. Ladybugs will arrive famished, so giving them an instant meal will encourage them to stay and look for more.
- Release them at the base of aphid-infested plants. Or, place them in the crotches of low branches. Ladybugs will crawl higher into the plants in search of aphids. But the lower they start out, the less likely they’ll fly away immediately. (And once they fly, they’ll often fly outside the boundaries of your garden, so it isn’t easy to get them back.)
This post updated from an article that originally appeared on June 12, 2012.