What do ladybug larvae look like? Knowing how to identify ladybugs (and other insects) at different stages in their life cycles will make you a better gardener and farmer, so come learn how! (Updated: Jan 28, 2019)
First, an embarrassing personal story…
Our first painful and guilt-inducing encounter with ladybug larvae
Many years ago when we were new gardeners, we didn’t know very much about insects. One day, as we were standing under a willow tree in our backyard, we noticed several small, spiny black and orange insects crawling down the tree trunk’s bark.
Yikes! What to do?
The insects looked dangerous, like miniature alligators. Surely, they were some sort of stinging critter that would do harm to us if given the opportunity.
So, like good responsible humans, we smashed the small insects with our gloved hands.
A little later when we were back inside, we did some googling. To our horror, we discovered that we’d just killed the larvae of some of the most beneficial predatory insects you can possibly have in your garden: ladybugs.
If we’d known the answer to the question “what do ladybug larvae look like?” we’d never have made this mistake. Our ignorance caused an unnecessary tragedy.
Feeling completely ashamed and disgusted with ourselves, we decided to create our own “insect policy” to ensure we never made the same mistake again.
Tyrant Farms’ Insect Policy: No action without knowledge
We decided that before we ever intentionally killed another insect (or any other critter) in our garden, we’d have to go through the following checklist first:
- We had to know what species it was.
- We had to know what ecological function it served.
- It had to present either a danger to us or our animals, OR it had to present a danger to our plants that would not likely be kept in check by our predatory insects. Examples of pest insects that fall into this category: black widows, ticks (although our ducks eat them all now), Squash Vine Borers, and Japanese beetles).
Also, when eradicating a pest insect that meets all three criteria above, we use approaches that do not harm non-target species. Depending on the pest insect we’re trying to control, the remedy might be catch crops, neem oil, bait traps, or removal by hand.
A walk through the life cycle of a ladybug – and answers to all your ladybug questions
Ladybugs (Coccinellidae) are technically not true bugs (Hemiptera), which is why entomologists prefer to call them “ladybird beetles” or simply “lady beetles.” Since most people in the US call them “ladybugs,” we’ll use that name in this article.
Different species of ladybugs exist in every temperate region on earth. At least 500 species of ladybugs have been identified in the US and almost 5,000 species have been identified worldwide.
Since ladybugs are voracious predators (and quite cute), they’re popular with gardeners, farmers, and children.
What do ladybugs eat?
Ladybugs eat other insects (and insect eggs) that are smaller than they are. These tend to be pest insects that gardeners dislike, such as aphids, scales, and mites.
Without ladybugs and other predatory insects around, these pest insects can quickly proliferate, weakening or killing the host plants or even entire crops.
What eats ladybugs?
As we often see in our garden, predator may become prey and prey may become predator. Even though ladybugs are predators, they may also become prey for anoles, spiders, mantids, frogs, and other predators.
Do ladybugs bite people?
No, ladybugs (Coccinellids) don’t bite people, but Asian ladybugs/lady beetles (Harmonia axyridis) can bite people. The two insects look almost identical. You can read about the differences and how to ID them here.
Adding to the confusion, Asian lady beetles are usually called Asian ladybugs. Both insects are predators and we see them both in our garden. Unfortunately, Asian ladybugs can often outcompete native ladybugs.
Do ladybugs overwinter?
Yes, ladybugs overwinter. Here again, an important distinction:
- Ladybugs (Coccinellids) overwinter outdoors under leaves or other debris.
- Asian ladybugs (Harmonia axyridis) are the ones that will often amass in large numbers inside your home in the winter.
Ladybug Lifecycle Phase 1: EGG
What do ladybug eggs look like?
A pregnant female ladybug will lay her eggs on the underside of leaves where food is abundant, e.g. lots of small pest insects are present.
Ladybug eggs are yellow and oval-shaped, and laid in a closely grouped cluster of about 15-40 eggs.
If you see a plant in your yard that has lots of aphids and ladybugs on it, don’t interfere! Within 7-10 days, the adult ladybugs and their larvae will likely eat nearly every aphid on the plant.
How many eggs can a ladybug lay?
While a ladybug egg cluster will usually contain between 15-40 eggs, a single female ladybug can lay up to 1,000 eggs throughout the warm months from spring through summer.
How long does it take ladybug eggs to hatch?
It varies by species and conditions, but ladybug eggs will hatch within 4-10 days.
Ladybug Lifecycle Phase 2: LARVA
What do ladybug larvae look like?
Ladybug larvae look like miniature black and orange alligators, and have small black and orange spikes protruding from their bodies.
How long does the ladybug larval stage last?
Once the larvae hatch from their egg cluster, they’ll progress through the larval stage in about 20-30 days. During that time, they become larger as they consume other insects, molting their skin as they grow.
As with butterfly caterpillars/larvae, each time a ladybug larva molts its skin, it enters a new developmental stage, aka “instar.” There are typically four instar stages before a ladybug larva is large enough to pupate.
Where do ladybug larvae live?
Ladybug larvae live and hunt on the leaves of plants, just as adult ladybugs do. Adult ladybugs can fly to new plants, whereas the larvae have to crawl to get to a new plant.
How many pest insects can a single ladybug larva eat?
A single ladybug larva can eat up to 400 aphids over the course of a month, which means the larvae from a 15-egg cluster could eat up to 6,000 aphids in your garden in one month.
That’s a lot of free pest control!
Do ladybug larvae eat each other?
Yes, ladybug larvae may eat each other, but usually only do so if other food sources are scarce.
This is one of the reasons we tell people that a healthy garden or farm ecosystem HAS to have pest insects present. Without pests, there is no food for predators.
Do ladybug larvae bite?
Asian ladybug larvae can bite people, but it’s unclear whether our native ladybug larvae bite people. The bites are annoying but nowhere close in comparison to the sting of a bee or wasp sting.
Asian ladybug larvae don’t inject venom, so the residual pain from their bites is short-lived. If you get bitten by a ladybug larva just give the bite a quick wash.
Where can you buy ladybug larvae?
If you want to buy ladybug larvae to introduce to your garden, you can do that here or click the image below.
However, by creating a biodiverse plant ecosystem in your garden and eliminating use of synthetic pesticides, you should also be able to attract and maintain your own large ladybug population over the course of a year.
Ladybug Lifecycle Phase 3: PUPA
The next stage in a ladybug’s life cycle is the pupal stage.
This stage is similar to a chrysalis in the lifecycle of a butterfly. A ladybug pupa does not eat.
The pupa is immobile, and undergoes a drastic physiological transformation between a soft-bodied larva and an adult, hard-shelled beetle.
What do ladybug pupae look like?
Ladybug pupae look like tiny orange shrimp attached to the leaf of a plant.
How long does a ladybug take to pupate?
There is variation by species and environmental conditions, but the pupal stage of a ladybug will last between 3-12 days, after which the skin will split open and the adult ladybug will emerge.
Ladybug Lifecycle Phase 4: ADULT
Immediately after pupating, the adult ladybug’s shell will be dull and soft. The emergent ladybug will take a few hours to dry before its shell becomes hard. As the shell dries, it also gains pigment, turning into its final bright colors.
How many insects can an adult ladybug eat?
A single adult ladybug may eat up to 5,000 insects (such as aphids) over the course of its life.
How long do adult ladybugs live?
Depending on the exact species, ladybugs can live between 1-3 years.
By reading this article, you’ve helped absolve us of the guilt we still feel from ignorantly killing ladybug larvae many years ago when we were new gardeners. Part of our ongoing penance is educating others.
Thank you for asking the question “what do ladybug larvae look like?” and caring enough to learn more about the life cycle of these remarkable little predatory insects. Please share this article to help other people learn more about ladybugs, too!