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Ladybug larva are often mistaken as pests by gardeners. But don't spray. These ugly bugs transform into those cute ladybugs that are good for the garden.

contributed photo

Thirty-five percent of all households in America, or about 42 million households, are growing food at home or in a community garden.

That's up 17 percent in the past five years, according to a 2016 report from the National Gardening Association. And nearly 90 percent of those 42 million say that environmentally friendly lawn and garden practices are important to them.

It is great to see so many gardeners are taking up the charge for organic or sustainable gardening and food production in their own backyards. While sustainable and organic gardening are not new, many of the ideas seem new to some gardeners.

One very important aspect of such gardening is knowing which insects are beneficial. It is alarming how many emails I receive with a picture of a ladybug larvae, and the homeowner is waiting eagerly with their pesticide at hip, ready to spray.

"Yes, you’re right," I inform them. "This looks nothing like a cute little ladybug. But trust me, in a few weeks it will turn into the ladybug you are more familiar with.”

Similar to a butterfly, ladybugs also have four distinct life stages — the egg, the larva, the papu and the adult.

To lay her eggs, the female adult ladybug will seek a location most likely around a leaf or plant that has a food source nearby. This helps the newly emerged ladybug larvae quickly find food as they come out of the egg. She will lay 10-50 eggs on the underside of a leaf.

The ladybug larvae come out hungry and on the prowl for soft-bodied insects such as mites, aphids and white flies. It's at this stage that many people mistake this insect for a plant-eating pest.

After two to three weeks of devouring the soft-bodied pests, the larvae will begin to change to the pupa stage. They will attach themselves to a leaf or stem and cover their bodies with a layer of molting skin for about a week until they emerge as the ladybug that we are more familiar with. In the pupa stage, the ladybug is resting and doesn’t eat any pests.

Once the ladybug emerges from its last transformation, it will have to dry out and wait for its elytra, the modified second pair of wings that are characteristic of all beetles, to harden. This is the red-with-black-dots portion of the insect that gives it its distinct look. Now the ladybug can go back to devouring our garden pests for us. One adult ladybug can eat up to 50 aphids every day.

Knowing what our beneficial insects look like at every stage of their life is very important to maintaining an organic or sustainable garden. Without this knowledge, gardeners may be killing good bugs as well as bad in hopes to rid their plants of pests.

Got a question?

Email gardennews@agcenter.lsu.edu.