By Emma Cotton/ VTDigger
When Julia Pupko pulled a little red bug out of her sweep net in late June, she doubted it was the two-spotted lady beetle. No one had seen the species in Vermont since 1996, and biologists feared it was extinct in the state.
Upon closer inspection, she saw that she had, indeed, captured the tiny, elusive creature. What’s more, another wriggled beside it in her net.
“I was really excited,” she said. “I ended up photographing them for so long that my phone died.”
Pupko, an ECO AmeriCorps member and the community science outreach naturalist with the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, had been on a specific mission to find rare lady beetles when she ventured out that day.
While the center has a team dedicated to chronicling various types of species all around the state, called the Vermont Atlas of Life, it has also endeavored to create a separate atlas specifically for lady beetles.
More than 450 species of lady beetles — also commonly called ladybugs — exist across North America. In Vermont, 45 species have been identified, including 36 native species, but 12 have been missing from the state since the 1970s. Staff members wanted to know whether the species were truly gone from the state.
Many lady beetles have beneficial niches in the ecosystem, eating aphids and other types of insects that can damage plants and crops when their populations grow too large. The two-spotted lady beetle is one of those beneficial species.
“This was one of those native species that was really, really important in terms of agricultural pest management, in addition to it being really important for natural forested and edge habitat ecosystems,” Pupko said.
While it was once one of the most common types of lady beetle, with a range that spanned the United States and Canada, it began to decline in the 1970s and 1980s, Pupko said, likely due to the introduction of several non-native lady beetle species. It’s currently listed as a species of greatest conservation need in New York, though it is not yet listed as threatened or endangered in Vermont.
Because the species hadn’t been seen in decades, the center’s staff members decided to hunt for it, along with three other species. The two-spotted beetle had been identified in a backyard in Massachusetts last winter, and that proximity had given them a sense of its possible existence in Vermont.
During the 2019 and 2020 field seasons, the staff at the center invited Vermonters to document any lady beetle species they could find. In the last year, the staff members narrowed their approach, dividing the state into 3-by-3-mile grid squares. Selecting a number of them, they asked citizen scientists to “adopt a plot” and attempt to identify the most elusive species.
When she found the two-spotted lady beetles, Pupko was sampling in Mills Riverside Park in Jericho, sweeping her net across plants and wildflowers at the edge of a field. Moments later, she caught an esteemed sigil lady beetle, which has been seen only sparingly in Vermont.
These aren’t the first rediscoveries to occur in Vermont this year — in late May, a Vermonter found nine federally threatened orchids, later confirmed by botanists at the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department.
Pupko said the presence of the rare species may indicate a healthy ecosystem — and hope for the resilience of biodiversity in Vermont.
“There’s so much doom and gloom surrounding climate change and ecosystem loss, biodiversity loss, etc., but native ecosystems are still so, so resilient,” Pupko said. “So many of these native species, even if they’re not doing too hot, are still here. There is still time for us to support them by supporting native ecosystems and thinking about how we can collectively be in the right relationship with the land.”
Anyone interested in participating in the lady beetle atlas project can visit the Vermont Center for Ecostudies’ website at val.vtecostudies.org/projects/lady-beetle-atlas.