I do a ton of citizen science outreach programs in my job. I like different citizen science projects for a variety of reasons, but when I’m working with kids, you can’t beat the Lost Ladybug Project. Lost Ladybug is great! It appeals to little kids because all of them have interacted with ladybugs at some point in their lives and very few kids, even girls, are scared of them. Also, when you ask the typical 5-year-old what their favorite insect is, ladybugs are right up there in the top two, just behind butterflies. Citizen science programs are often hard to do with young kids because they have only the vaguest idea of what science is, so trying to convince them that they should do science, that they can help scientists learn more about a subject, is a really hard sell. But not with Lost Ladybug! In my experience, kids LOVE that project. They understand why they should do it (that they are helping scientists learn more about native and non-native ladybugs and their interactions) and no one beats a 5-year-old as a ladybug spotter. Lost Ladybug is, I think, the very best citizen science project you can do with the really little guys. I teach a lot of people about it. A LOT.
My museum had a Homeschool Day on Monday, a day where homeschool families could bring their kids to Prairie Ridge for a variety of nature-themed lessons taught by several different educators at the museum. I was scheduled to teach my Lost Ladybug lesson during my session for 7-9 year olds. I had no idea what to expect! I had done the same lesson just a few days before and we hadn’t found a single ladybug in the hour that we looked. I had even looked at the bronze fennel in the Prairie Ridge garden, the place I can almost always find ladybugs, and we STILL didn’t find any! It’s all well and good when you’re leading a small group on a free walk, but when you’ve got a larger group and they’ve paid to learn something from you, well… It would suck if you didn’t find anything! So, I scooped a couple of larvae I found into the magnifier boxes and hoped for the best.
I had about 10 kids in my group, and I started by telling them about the Lost Ladybug Project, what we were going to be doing, and handed out some identification guides for the ladybugs they were most likely to see. The plan was that they would spread out in the prairie and look for ladybugs. If they found any, they would bring the ladybug to me or my awesome volunteer and we would record some basic information on the data sheets I created for the project. Then we would snap a photo and release the ladybug back into the field when we were done. I had 6 magnifier boxes with me, but I had little hope we would find that many. And things started off slowly as expected. We walked out into the field and everyone started looking for ladybugs. The kids looked really hard and were so excited! Eventually one kid yelled, “I found one!” and we all rushed over to see. It was just a ladybug pupa, so my volunteer and I talked about the ladybug life cycle a bit and showed off the larvae, then sent the kids back out to look. It wasn’t looking good.
A few minutes later, another kid yelled, “I found one!” and came running over with hands cupped in that way that can only mean they’re holding something that’s likely to get away. I grabbed a magnifier box and we carefully transferred our first ladybug into the box. A few kids came over to see, so we all looked at the ID guide, counted the spots, and learned that our first find was a seven spotted ladybug. It’s a non-native species, so the kids all said, “awwww!” in a very disappointed manner, then went back out to look for more. Soon another kid came running over, hand carefully cupped around a ladybug. Into a box it went, and before we’d even finished, a mom brought over another. Soon it was all we could do to keep up with the flow of ladybugs! Kids were running to us from all over the field. My six boxes weren’t nearly enough, so we started doubling up, then tripling, the ladybugs in the boxes. My volunteer and I gave up trying to record the data as the data was the same for every ladybug and there was no way to keep up with the photos. Eventually, we took photos of two ladybugs just so the kids could see us doing it, then we gave up and decided to finish photographing ladybugs after everyone left.
One of the other museum people went to find more bug boxes for us, and soon my pockets were full of ladybug boxes. My assistant was carrying even more in my lunchbag. We counted our ladybugs and learned that we found 28 of them. And it was great! The kids were having a ton of fun. Their parents were getting really into it too. Every time a kid would bring a ladybug over, they would say, “It’s just another seven spot…” and sigh heavily before running off to find more. I even heard a few kids whine, “ANOTHER non-native ladybug! Are there ANY native ladybugs out here??” That’s the sort of thing that makes your heart leap a bit when you’re doing a program, a kid that has voluntarily demonstrated that they understand what you’re doing. I even had a few kids teach one of the other museum educators what a ladybug pupa looked like because she hadn’t ever seen one. The kids knew just where to find one and were really happy to share their new knowledge.
After making a quick trip to the garden to look at the larvae on the fennel plants, we gathered together to discuss our findings. Of the 28 ladybugs we found, 25 were the non-native seven spots. One was another non-native, the Asian multicolored ladybeetle. Considering how very many of them make their way into the trailer where the Prairie Ridge offices are during the winter, I was quite surprised that we found only one in the field. Happily, we did find two native species, one convergent ladybug and one polished ladybug. The kids that found those were incredibly excited because they’d found something special – they’d found native ladybugs in a sea of non-natives.
We finished up the session with a discussion of warning coloration in ladybugs and what it means, then I gave each kid a coloring sheet so they could draw a ladybug with warning coloration (real or imaginary) and had them write down what kind of animal the coloration protected them from. We had a great mix of realistic and imaginary ladybugs, then all the kids proudly took their art, a Lost Ladybug bookmark, and an ID sheet home so they could continue finding and submitting ladybugs on their own. I’ve told thousands of people about Lost Ladybug, but this was the first time I’d ever really felt like most or all the people in the group would go home and actually do the project. It was a great feeling!
Days like this are the reason why I love my job and why I love teaching people about insects. Getting a bunch of kids out in the field collecting bugs… There’s really nothing better! Seeing that excitement and energy directed toward something you’re passionate about is incredible. And I’m teaching this lesson again this Saturday! We’ll be collecting in downtown Raleigh this time, not at the field station, so it will be interesting to see if there are differences in the things we find or not. And this time, I’ll bring a LOT more boxes, just in case.