A Garden Affair with Killer Ladies / by Marc Cappelletti

A few days ago, 1,500 ladybugs flew to my home in south Philadelphia.  Actually, I had them shipped in a padded container all the way from the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  This is where ladybugs come from.

I am not a “bug guy,” OK?  I don’t have a collection.  I don’t own ladybug paraphernalia, mugs or desk calendars, and I have never ordered insects online before.  But a man--when pushed to his limits--does what he must.

See, two weeks ago I noticed white and black specs on the leaves of a hibiscus in my back patio.  The plant is typically loaded with big, beautiful, pink-petaled flowers.  Only this year the leaves are smaller and darker.  The flower buds are barely there.  

My neighbor Diane told me that it was infested with aphids, tiny nutrient-sucking insects.  She said to spray them with something organic.  "Coconut or peppermint oil.”  

I don’t want these things smelling better, Diane!  I want them gone!

At Lowes, I found Garden Safe Insecticidal Soap Insect Killer, the words “safe” and “killer” practically hugging on the label; perfect for the kind of no holds barred yet environmentally safe mayhem I wanted to unleash.  I wondered—what’s in this stuff to make it both safe and effective?  The label listed Active Ingredients by Wt.: Potassium Salts of Fatty Acids…1%, which sounded good.  I can see Bobby Flay sprinkling potassium salts of fatty acids into one of his recipes.  And the acids would burn the little devils like salt on a snail.

Then I read: Other Ingredients…99%.  

Excuse me?  99% of this stuff is “other?”  How is that even legal?  Other could mean useless tap water, or turpentine, maybe some of that hippy peppermint oil Diane was hocking.  

Turned off by the insecticidal mystery spray, I went home and Googled solutions.  One made me particularly curious.  Ladybugs.  The site said they were “voracious eaters” and the best long term way to deal with aphids.  Hello?  Safe, voracious and adorable?  Sign me up!  I forked over my credit card information and soon $34 worth of killer lady bugs were headed my way.

The bugs arrived a few days later in a box appropriately labeled “Live Lady Bugs.”  I nodded at the mailman, who glanced at the label as he handed it over.  "Yup, they're live lady bugs," I said, and closed the door before he could judge me further.   

Under the cover of night, I went to my patio, and with a teaspoon, ladled the ladybugs out of their container and dropped them like paratroopers onto the plant.  Go! Go! Go!  

I slept soundly, dreaming of the carnage that would ensue. 

The next morning, I went to the garden and found a few upside-down lady bugs dotting the hibiscus leaves.  The website said to expect a few casualties and I chalked it up to the long trip.  Other ladybugs crawled in the dirt below.  I looked down with pride at my garden world, these diligent beetles doing my backyard bidding.  Soon I’d have enough healthy flowers to outfit a Hawaiian luau.  

But when I looked closer I saw that the hibiscus was unchanged.  The ladybugs weren’t crawling on their own.  Some moved sideways.  Others were upside down and somehow still moving.  

Ants—black garden ants were carrying my ladybugs away like the spoils of war.  One after another--dead, dead, dead.  The more I looked, the more dead ladybugs I saw.  A total bloodbath.  Ants by the dozens crawled over my dear ladybugs, pulled at them, defiled them.  I turned from the butchery as reality hit.  My ladies were gone.  

My laptop on, I scrolled once again through options like neem oil, dish detergent and water and natural predators like lacewings, caterpillars, monarch butterflies and something called a Minute Pirate Bug.  

I decided to keep it simple and return to Lowes for Garden Safe Insect Killer.  I’d let those “other ingredients” do what my ladybug army could not.  But as I pulled into a parking spot, I couldn't get out of the car.  A seed of an idea was growing in the back brambles of my mind.  It was strange and it was strong and it had to be explored.  It had to do with pirate bugs.  And it wondered how quickly they’d ship.