If You Go Down to the Woods Today You’re in for a ‘Bug’ Surprise
Students in Ambrose University’s Principles of Ecology course netted a rare surprise, quite literally, last fall when a tiny, rare ladybird beetle no bigger than the size of two pinheads crawled out of a collection net.
The group had ventured out to the wooded area only five minutes from campus to gather a variety of insects for biodiversity analysis when they found not one, but two, tiny Hyperaspis undulata. While many of this particular native-Alberta species may live in the province, only five or six have been found and confirmed.
“I knew as soon as I saw it that it was something special,” says Dr. Ted Pike, the course’s lab teaching assistant and an insect expert. “I’ve been working with ladybird beetles for 35 years, so when I saw how small it was, and its dark body with two white spots in the middle and creamy yellow lines around the periphery, I knew it was rare.”
To be sure, Pike prepped the Ambrose find and took it to the University of Alberta, home of the best beetle collection in Western Canada, to compare it to known specimens. His hunch was verified.
“I expected to find ladybird beetles in the woodlot,” Pike says, “but didn’t expect to find this one.”
While the students were initially puzzled about Pike’s excitement over such a tiny thing, once they learned about the beetle’s rarity, they soon realized their good fortune.
Learning in Ambrose’s Own Backyard
On the surface, the isolated aspen woodlot on the edge of Ambrose’s campus is nothing extraordinary. It’s in a populated area in a city of more than a million people, has been surrounded by construction projects and isn’t in a river basin. But it’s a treasure trove of learning and a one-of-a-kind natural “outdoor lab” for students in the Bachelor of Science – Biology program.
“There are probably 3,000 species just in that little woodlot,” Ted Pike explains. “Science is there just waiting for the right eyes to see it. If you stop and look — and have the knowledge to know what to look for and how to look — you can find scarce things.”
That point was confirmed by two other observations made the same day the beetle was found.
“When we found the beetle, I disturbed a moth on a tree trunk, which is only the third time I’ve found a moth sitting on a tree trunk during the day,” Pike says, explaining that it’s exceedingly difficult to find moths anywhere during the day, so there are few natural moth records.
A day later, on the students’ second trip to the woodlot, they saw something else that was rare: a bird eating a moth. “Because birds are active during the day, and moths are active at night, up until the 1950s and ’60s, it was thought that birds don’t eat moths. But here in front of us was a group of chickadees eating moths. This happens only a few times in a lifetime of watching.”
Real-world, hands-on opportunities like this deepen students’ understanding of science. “You can watch a video of Shaq playing basketball and enjoy it, but it doesn’t make you a basketball player,” Pike notes. “You can read about science in textbooks, but that doesn’t make you a scientist.
“To really do science, you have to get in the game. To go out and see how scientists collect material and information is incredibly important.
“You can be sure we’ll be going back to the woodlot with eyes wide open next year.”
Ladybug or Ladybird?
What’s in a name? The beetle found on Ambrose’s doorstep can go by two common names: ladybird beetle or ladybug. The former is more commonly used in Canada and the U.K., while the latter is common in the U.S.
There are approximately 55 species of native ladybird beetles in Alberta, but the bright orange ones hanging out in Calgary gardens aren’t among them. Both the seven-spot ladybird beetle, which is larger than most native species, and the two-spot beetle have been introduced to the province, often at the expense of native populations.