Monday, June 22, 2015

Apple #713: Nutrition Data Labels

I have developed a fondness for a rather terrible junk food.  I've always liked Fritos, especially when inserted into a grilled cheese sandwich.  But now they've got these newfangled souped-up Fritos -- the Honey BBQ Flavor Twists.  The name itself should tell you this is processed pseudo pfood from the pit of badness, but apparently, I don't care.

The twistiness makes the Fritos extra-crunchy and therefore very satisfying, and the honey barbecue flavor, which is probably an affront to all genuine barbecues everywhere, is such a diabolical combination of sweet and spicy that I keep going back for more.

I've been trying to cut back on the sugar these days, and I assumed these junky temptresses would have tons of sugar in them.  I mean, they've got "Honey" in their name.  But when I checked the nutrition label, it says only 1 gram of sugar per serving, where one serving equals 23 chips.

Nutrition Facts for Fritos Honey BBQ Favor Twists.  Recipe for for my downfall, apparently.
(Image from Frito-Lay)

23 chips is a fairly good amount.  I can usually hold myself to about that many per junk-out session with the Fritos.  1 gram of sugar is not that much.  In fact, it's surprisingly little.  Especially when the ingredients include
  • Corn -- among the sweetest of the vegetables. It is, after all, the source of corn syrup.
  • Sugar
  • Brown sugar
  • Honey solids
  • Molasses solids

Either all these sweetening agents are present in very small amounts, or somebody's not doing their math right.

So then of course I had to wonder, who puts together this nutrition data, anyway?  Is it the food manufacturers themselves who say how much of x, y, & z is in their stuff, or is somebody else looking at the food they make and tallying up the goods & the bads?  If it's the food manufacturers themselves, what's to prevent them from lying through their high fructose corn syrup-coated teeth?

Never fear, the Apple Lady has got the skinny for you.

  • It's the FDA that is in charge of the Nutrition Data label.  But when I say "in charge of," I mean they are the ones who say what the label looks like, and what information must be included on it -- you have to say how much trans fats are in your food, how much sodium, how much protein, etc., etc.
  • By the way, they've proposed changing the way the Nutrition Data label looks.  An example of the current label is shown below on the left, and an example of the proposed new label is on the right. 

(sample Nutrition Facts labels, current and forthcoming, from the FDA)

  • They want to make the information that's most important to people bigger and easier to read -- calories in big print, as is the serving size, and the % daily values are closer to the thing they're measuring.  I think it's an improvement. 
  • Speaking of serving size, the FDA are also going to change the way servings sizes are calculated, to reflect what's more realistic.  Instead of making serving sizes say how much of a thing you should eat or drink, they're going to say how much of a thing you actually will eat or drink.  So for a 20-ounce Coke, for example, instead of saying that's a serving and a half or whatever amount they now use, soon they'll say it is one serving, since most people drink the entire 20 ounces as a serving.  Which will mean the amount of sugar per serving displayed on the label of a 20-ounce Coke will most definitely go up.

The exterior of one of the FDA's buildings at its campus headquarters in Silver Spring, MD
(Photo from the FDA's Flickr page)

One of the labs at the FDA. This particular lab is used for drug evaluation, but this gives you an idea of the level of technology the FDA is using on a regular basis to carry out its multitudinous operations.
(Photo from the FDA's Flickr page)

  • The FDA also dictates the way percentages of daily values are calculated (you would expect this to be obvious and simple, but it's not), and they stipulate how the samples of a particular food are to be determined, how many must be sampled, what math to use to get rid of outliers in the sample, and so on.
  • I want to pause on this concept of sampling for a moment.  Let's say your product is dried plums.  You grow your plums in several different orchards in different locations around the country.  The plums grown in California during a drought will be slightly different -- maybe smaller with a darker & thicker skin -- than the plums grown in Michigan during an especially rainy season -- maybe larger and with more moisture -- and those will again differ slightly from the plums grown in Idaho during an especially sunny time -- maybe these will have a lighter-colored skin but darker flesh.  
  • Because of these variations, the nutritional content of the plums in each of these regions will also vary slightly.  Maybe the droughty California plums will have a higher fiber content, while the rainy Michigan plums have more sugar, while the sunny Idaho plums have more Vitamin C.
  • The FDA therefore has rules about how to account for such variations in crops.  Either you use a database that's already been complied for your product (in this case, plums) that has been let's say "normalized" to take into account all the variations -- growing season, have the crops been transported and how far and for how long, in what soil were they grown, how were they processed, and so on.  Or if the FDA doesn't have a database already, you can develop your own, but the FDA has very strict rules about how you do that.
  • So, ultimately, the FDA is in charge of what the label looks like, how the samples are compiled, and what math is used to arrive at the numbers that go on the label.
  • But the real meat & potatoes of the business -- how the food itself is tested and analyzed -- the FDA is not in charge of that.
  • The testing & analysis of the food is the responsibility of the food manufacturer.  In the case of our Honey BBQ Twisty Fritos, that would be Frito-Lay.
  • However, most food manufacturers do not test & analyze their own foods.  They don't have the expertise or capabilities to do that.  Most food manufacturers hire a laboratory to do the testing & analysis for them.
  • Who are the food testing laboratories?  They are legion, across the country and around the world.
  • Think of all the things that foods can be tested for.  Here is a short list:
    • Nutritional data -- fats, vitamins, minerals, calories, etc.
    • Presence of toxins -- bacteria, salmonella, fungal toxins, etc.
    • Organically grown or not, and the effect on nutrition
    • Influence of pesticides or herbicides
    • Presence of GMOs or influence of GMOs on nutrition
  • That gives you one clue as to how many food testing labs there are out there.  

An FDA inspector and a store employee conducting a pretty simple on-site test to determine the pH of rice.  With a pH of < 4.6, the rice can be left at room temperature while the sushi, right, is prepared.
(Photo from the FDA's Food Safety Flickr page)

  • Maybe a better indicator of the number of food testing labs is the range of methods that can be used to analyze food. Those, too, are now legion.
    • One of my favorite methods is by incineration.  That's right, they burn the food.  Then they analyze the ash. The ash can tell them lots of things, such as levels of carbon or potassium, or the alkalinity of the food.  Two notable observations: if they're analyzing a sugar or a gelatin and there's an unusually high amount of ash after burning, it means the sugar is of low quality.  Or when analyzing other types of food, a high amount of ash can indicate "the presence of an adulterant," like dirt or sand.
    • Most methods these days are extremely advanced, and the names for those methods use very big words.  I've listed some of these techniques along with a super-simplified description of how the technique is used to identify a food's chemical components.
      • mass spectrometry -- identifies chemicals by their mass
      • nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy -- by the magnetic fields surrounding the nuclei
      • polymerase chain reaction -- by their DNA replicated on a large scale
      • gas chromatography -- by the gases present when the material is vaporized
      • high-performance liquid chromatography -- by the way each component interacts with another liquid
      • capillary electrophoresis -- by the way the ions react after voltage is applied
      • supercritical fluid extraction -- by the way the compounds behave in the presence of a non-organic solvent super-heated and super-pressurized so it is between a liquid and a gas

This is what a mass spectrometry machine looks like, circa 2005.
(Photo by Nayu Kim on Flickr)

  • You can see how a food manufacturer would not possess the expertise or the equipment to run such tests.
  • The methods the labs use to run their tests are stipulated, for the most part, by the industry associations to which they belong.  There are several such associations -- the American Association of Cereal Chemists, the American Oil Chemists Society, the Institute of Food Technologists, to name a few.

  • The AOAC is a global association of academics, government agency members, laboratories, instrument manufacturers, and other providers of chemical technology services and equipment.  Since 1884, these members have contributed their knowledge and experience toward the development of standards of chemical analysis -- not just for testing food for nutritional content, but they also test supplements & vitamins, infant formula, livestock feed, fertilizer, soil & water, and human & animal pharmaceuticals.
  • They publish what seems to be the industry bible that describes the best way to run all sorts of tests, whichever method you're using, or for whatever component(s) you want to identify.  Their guide, Official Methods of Analysis, is the must-have reference tool for the industry (though the current edition, the 19th, is sold out at the moment).
  • It's all voluntary, people's participation in this association and their contribution to the development of better & better standards.  But if they screwed up their own standards, they'd only be making things harder for themselves.  Having standards is also a way they can tell which companies are doing a good job and which companies are doing shoddy work and so might be giving their fellow chemists a bad name.
  • So it's in an industry association's best interests to come up with the best practices that they can and to keep everybody as informed about those best methods.  This is why the FDA seems to feel pretty confident in relying on the chemical & food research community to develop and maintain their own methods for analyzing foods.
  • So, to recap, a food manufacturer hires one of these food analysis labs that are most likely a member of the AOAC or similar organization.  The lab runs whatever super-duper tests they have on the food -- in our case, the FritoLay Honey BBQ Flavor Twists--and then they report the results of their multiple & complex tests to the food manufacturer.
  • It is up to the food manufacturer to make sure that the information on the Nutrition Data label is accurate and is presented in line with the FDA's regulations (the math is done correctly, etc.).
  • The manufacturer sends the information about the label to their packager, the packager prints the labels on the packaging & ships out the product, the grocery store puts it on the shelf, we pick it up, read the label, say, "Only one gram of sugar? Heck, that's hardly anything," and buy the stupid bag of Fritos.

The Frito-Lay Honey BBQ Flavor Twist packaging being produced.  The material used is a pre-printed plastic film which extends product shelf life. Frito-Lay's Fayetteville, TN plant is working to find more ways to recycle this material.  Their scraps from making potato chips are sold to a dog food manufacturer.
(Photo from Maintenance Technology)

  • But the FDA isn't entirely and totally trusting of this process.  They will randomly spot-check a manufacturer's products.  They'll run their own tests and compare the results against the Nutrition Data label. (The FDA follows the AOAC's Methods in conducting their tests, by the way.)
  • The FDA is in charge of most of the foods we eat.  The USDA polices all things meat & poultry -- slaughtered, processed, packaged meats, chicken, and eggs -- and the FDA covers everything else.  It's the USDA's policy that if the stuff that's actually in the package is within 20% of what the label says, the food is in compliance.  I can't find anything that says so exactly, but I'm assuming that the FDA has a similar tolerance allowance in the neighborhood of 20%.
  • If what's in the package is more than 20% different than what the label says, then you're out of compliance and . . . I don't know what happens next.  All the out-of-compliance stuff I found was for really serious things, like foodborne illnesses (salmonella, listeria, etc.) which can be really dangerous and which were found to be present because some element of the company's operation was out of compliance with the FDA's requirements for how you're supposed to set up your shop.  
  • I couldn't find any discussion of occasions when what was in a package of Fritos differed in some way greater than 20% of what the label said, and what the FDA did about it.
  • I suppose there's probably a hierarchy of penalties -- fines, requirements to change your labels and maybe your procedures, and then if the problem persists, maybe you lose your approval to sell your foodstuffs.  But I'm just guessing at this part of it.

FDA food safety inspectors examining cans of infant formula to see if they're within their expiration date.
(Photo from the FDA's Food Safety Flickr page)

  • So, what does this all mean about my Fritos nutrition data label?  I think it means that, unless I'm willing to go out and get my own mass spectrometer and run my own spectrometry tests, I should probably accept that the industry professionals know what they're doing -- within a 20% range of accuracy, and for a normalized sample of Fritos.  
  • It is possible I could have gotten a rogue bag of Fritos that has more than 20%  of what the label says of sugar in it, which would amount to > 1.2 grams of sugar per serving as opposed to 1 gram per serving.  But the odds of that happening are not high.  
  • And I'd probably eat the crunchy twisty Fritos anyway.

Mmm, look how crunchy.
(Screenshot from this video of someone eating a bag of the Honey BBQ Flavor Twists)

USDA, Frequently Asked Questions, What are the regulations for creating food product and nutrition labels?
US FDA, Guidance for Industry: Nutritional Labeling Manual - A Guide for Developing and Using Data Bases
US FDA, Proposed Changes to the Nutrition Facts Label
US FDA, Compliance Manuals
Leo M. L. Nollet, Handbook of Food Analysis: Physical characterization and nutrient analysis
AOAC International 
Alejandro Cifuentes, Food Analysis: Present, Future, and Foodomics, ISRN Analytical Chemistry, Volume 2012, Doc ID 801607
The National Restaurant Association, The rise of nutrition analysis
Chem Guide UK, The Mass Spectrometer

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Apple #712: Brain Fog after Exercise

Earlier today, I played tennis.  Not a real game, just hitting the ball around with a friend for about an hour and a half.  This is the second time I've played tennis in I'm not sure how long.  Twenty years?  I'm embarrassed that such a number like that exists in my life.  Anyway, it's been a very long time, and I am woefully out of practice.

Also, as my body is reminding me, it is not used to being so active & athletic.  Most of the time, my exercise consists of hour-plus-long walks in the woods or equally lengthy bike rides.  Neither of those things is as challenging as running down a little bouncy yellow ball and trying to hit it back over the net with speed and accuracy.  Or so my aching thighs and biceps are telling me.

Heather Watson, at Wimbledon 2014. I would like you to notice how muscular her arms and legs are. This is how fit you have to be to play tennis well. This is not me.
(Photo from Celeb Mafia)

The last time my friend & I played, it was a pretty hot day.  When I got home, I took a shower and passed out for about three hours.  Wiped. Out.  Today, it wasn't that hot, so I thought I wouldn't find myself so completely out of commission afterward.  And that was true; it wasn't as bad.  No total blank-out sleep, but I did take a couple of naps.  What's relevant to this here Daily Apple is that I have felt fogged in the head most of the day.

One of many depictions of brain fog. This one, made with Microsoft Paint, seems especially apt.
(Image by Lydia King)

I've been trying to settle on a Daily Apple topic for, what, three hours now.  I've read news articles, found a couple of things that seemed like good candidates, read a page or two about the topic, but just could not see how I could contribute anything further to the information available.  I chalk this up to the brain fog: it's not that I doubt my abilities, I'm just having trouble visualizing what I could do.

This one might be my favorite.
(Image from Tara Skye Golden)

I looked up brain fog and exercise, and I got a lot of flotsam & jetsam.  It takes some thinking at a higher level than my brain wants to do right now to sort out what's relevant and useful from what's not.  But I'll give it a bit of a go.  We'll see what comes out.

  • Brain fog is not any kind of official medical term.  But it's something most of us have experienced at some time or other.  It can be characterized by
    • inability to focus or concentrate
    • poor memory retention or recollection
    • difficulty learning new information
    • you tend to view a task as more difficult than you otherwise would
    • difficulty expressing thoughts articulately
    • disorientation
    • lack of mental clarity
  • In other words, your brain just won't work as well as it normally does.

(Image from Chronic Curve)

  • All kinds of things can contribute to brain fog.  Here are some of those things.  I will alphabetize them, because I'm not a medical-enough person to tell you which causes are more or less common, and the alphabetizing will be a good exercise for my cloudy cortex.
    • ADHD
    • Anxiety
    • Brain injuries or brain tumors
    • Chemotherapy
    • Chronic fatigue syndrome
    • Dehydration
    • Depression
    • Diabetes
    • Electrolyte imbalance following exercise
    • Fibromyalgia
    • Food allergies, especially gluten
    • Hormonal imbalance
    • Low blood sugar
    • Lack of sleep (guilty)
    • Lyme's disease
    • Lupus
    • Menopause 
    • Multiple sclerosis
    • PTSD
    • Schizophrenia
    • Stress
    • Substance abuse or withdrawal from substance abuse
    • Thyroid disorders
  • I like the alphabetical list because it puts big scary things next to fairly common things -- schizophrenia next to stress, for example.  I find it interesting that common things like dehydration or low blood sugar can have an effect that is similar to one of the effects of a big scary thing like schizophrenia or a brain tumor.
  • That said, I'm sure the level or duration of brain fog probably does differ, depending on which of these causes is involved.
  • I suspect I'm not saying this right.  Hopefully you will know what I mean.

(Image from As My Body Attacks Itself)

  • One of the main points here is that a lot of us experience brain fog, for any one of a multitude of possible reasons.  
  • In my case, I've got the fog probably because of a suite of three or four causes: after-effects of exercise, dehydration, and lack of sleep.  I would kind of like to go to bed right now and sleep for a day or two.
  • Here's one interesting thing I read about dehydration: some researchers studied what would happen to women who exercised and got dehydrated versus women who exercised and did not get dehydrated.  The researchers tested the women's mental abilities before and after exercising to determine how their brain function was affected. 
  • The women who were dehydrated reported
    • less vigor
    • more fatigue
    • increased perception of task difficulty
    • headaches that were more severe than those not dehydrated
  • The other interesting tidbit is that the women who were dehydrated didn't know that they were.  This doesn't surprise me because I remember reading elsewhere that it doesn't take much for your body to be effectively dehydrated.  The symptoms of dehydration can be very severe -- think of the bearded thirsty guy crawling through the desert -- but you can be a very long way from that point and still be dehydrated.

Thirsty? If so, take a tip from this cat and have a drink of water.
(Photo from VetriScience Laboratories)

  • Signs of mild dehydration are:
    • Thirst
    • Dry, sticky mouth
    • Sleepiness
  • (That last one is especially interesting in this context, isn't it?)
  • I remember reading some doctor saying somewhere, "If you're thirsty, you're dehydrated."  Surprising, but true.
  • But I want to know more about how or why exercise reduces your mental capacity.  
  • A lot of guys who lift talk about "CNS fatigue" or having trouble paying attention the day after a heavy lifting session.  
  • Some say they try to avoid it by taking naps before and after a lifting session, or they eat more (there's a debate as to whether proteins or carbs will be more helpful in this situation).  
  • So it's very much a real thing. But why does it happen?

(Image from Alaska Health Improvement Center

  • [looks up more stuff]
  • Well, I can find all sorts of things that say exercise is good for the brain.  Stimulates blood flow, which means more oxygen gets carried to the brain, which encourages mental function and also possibly the generation of new brain tissue.  Stimulates endorphins, which reduce levels of depression, and can give you a "runner's high" feeling afterward.  Improves cardiovascular function, helps control blood sugar levels, as well as of course helping to burn fat and reduce weight.
  • I can also find things that say that too much exercise, as in people who train intensely for really long periods of time -- people training for the Iron Man, for example -- can be bad for you.  Your body can't cope with the amount of stress all that exercise is putting on it, so the immune system gets overtaxed.  Regular high-intensity exercisers may find that they're getting colds and flu a lot, or they're developing problems with their heart rate, or they may even suffer a stroke.
  • I am nowhere near having that kind of exercise problem. 

Exercising so hard this happens can actually be bad for you.  It can make your body vulnerable to illnesses and injuries.
(Photo originally from Lava Magazine, sourced from Iron Man Finish Line Collapse)

  • Ah, here's one article.  "Researchers suggested that too much exercise may cause the brain to “max out” in the production of BDNF [brain-derived neurotrophic factor] and neurons, and this may prevent learning."
    • (BDNF, by the way, is a protein that supports the health of synapses in the brain and also protects and helps grow new neurons.)
  • In other words, the more physically fit mice had reduced mental capacity compared to the less active mice.
  • This runs counter to expectations because most of the time, exercise increases your mental acuity.  But that's in the short-term.  This study was looking at bred-into-them traits over the long term. 
  • So this study doesn't really answer my question. But maybe the business of there being an overload of BDNF may apply in the immediate short-term, too.

Brain fog, someecards style
(Image posted somewhere on this Beat Brain Fog Pinterest page)

  • [looks up more stuff.]
  • OK, I can't find anything that tells me what I want to know.  Even so, I think I've read enough to formulate a theory of my own.  Here goes.
  • A moderate level of exercise is good.  Gets all the juices flowing, improves your mood, sharpens mental abilities -- in general does all sorts of wonderful things for your mind and body.
  • But when you do too much exercise, then you can run into problems.  This can mean too much exercise over the long term, or too much exercise in a single session.
    • Lots of those body builders report that if they have a really intense session one day, whether or not they get the brain fog the next day depends on how in shape they are already.  If they've kind of fallen out of shape for a while and then go back to it hard, they get the brain fog.  Or if they're at a good, consistent level of lifting but they don't give their body sufficient recovery time in between sessions, then they'll get the brain fog the next day. 
  • And here's my theory about why this happens.  This is completely and totally my theory -- not even that, it's actually only a hypothesis. And not a scientific one, at that.  
  • I'm thinking that exercise that reaches a level of intensity that your body is not prepared for because of factors such as
    • not enough sleep
    • not enough carbs to fuel the body & the brain
    • your body just isn't used to that much exercise
  • then your body doesn't have enough juice to power both the body and the brain.  So your body makes some tough decisions about where to divert the resources it does have.  And since it's always going to choose that which is absolutely necessary for survival first, it's going to feed the most basic functions first and let the nice-to-have stuff slide for a bit.  Higher brain function probably falls into the nice-to-have category as opposed to, oh, keeping your blood flowing and your heart beating, regulating your body temperature, sending food to your cells, and so on. 
  • So while your muscles are twitching and your heart rate is returning to normal and your muscles are trying to rebuild, your brain is temporarily left in the zombie zone.
  • So, what to do if you find yourself in the post-exercise brain fog?  Here are my suggestions:
    • drink water
    • sleep
    • eat
    • drink water
    • sleep
    • eat
    • rest
  • That's all I've got.  Thank you and good night.

This is more like me. Not enough sleep.  Cause I got stuff to do. 
(Photo from Inquisitr)

Monday, May 18, 2015

Apple #711: Do Ladybugs Bite?

If you've been reading the series of entries on how I put together these here Daily Apples, you'll already be a little bit familiar with this topic (I used this topic as an example in Part 2 of Behind the Daily Apple).  But it seems to me that the best way to finish the question, how do I do what I do, is to show you the final result.  So here is the final result.

So here's the question I said I would take up: what's up with the biting ladybugs?  To get a bit more specific, where did they come from?  Did they always bite, or is this a new thing?  Let me insert one more general question ahead of that: Do ladybugs bite?

  • Short answer: Yes. And it's kind of our own fault.

Asian ladybug. This kind bites.
(Photo from GardenWeb)
  • This is a case of unintended consequences. Or put another way, people not really thinking through the effects of their actions.
  • As early as 1916, again in the 1960s, and yet again in the 1970s, people in the US brought ladybugs from Asia here to this country because those Asian ladybugs ate aphids.  
    • What better way to control this pest problem? they said with excitement. No pesticides necessary!  We just drop a bag of Asian ladybugs on these pecan trees, or on these rose bushes (that's what the ladybugs were sold for in my home town, back in the day), and they'll eat up the aphids!  No more aphid problem!  Sure, maybe we've got a few extra ladybugs.  So what?  They're harmless.  They're ladybugs!
  • Well.  After enough years of dropping bags full of ladybugs onto pecan trees and rose bushes and whatever else, the Asian ladybugs made themselves at home here in this country.  They "jumped ship" as one source put it, meaning they did not die off at the end of the season but rather started building little ladybug homes, having little ladybug babies, and raising their offspring, who then went and had more little ladybug babies.

Multicolored Asian lady beetle females can lay up to 3,800 eggs in one season, sometimes in batches of 20 to 30 eggs per day.  Lots of ladybugs making lots of ladybug babies, and you'll get a pretty big ladybug population pretty fast.
(Photo from The Ohio State University OARDC)

  • They were "observed in the wild" -- meaning there was a large enough colony living on their own, outside of any farmer's or gardener's observation or assistance -- in New Orleans in 1988.  Since then, the Asian ladybug has spread like crazy across most of the United States and Canada.
  • They are now considered established in the Northwest, the Northeast, and the Midwest.
  • Why is this such a problem?  After all, they're only ladybugs, right?
  • To answer that, we have to know a little more about this particular kind of ladybug.
  • The Asian ladybug, a.k.a. . . .
    • Harmonia axyridis
    • multicolored Asian lady beetle
    • Asian lady beetle
    • Halloween lady beetle
    • Japanese lady beetle
    • harlequin ladybird
    • many-named ladybird
    • multivariate ladybird
    • pumpkin ladybird
    • Japanese ladybird
    • southern ladybird
  • . . . eats aphids.  I mean, they really go to town on the aphids.  They were first brought here to eat the aphids on pecan trees, but then they discovered all the soybean fields all across the south and the Midwest.  Rife throughout those soybean fields were soybean aphids.  A smorgasbord to the multicolored Asian lady beetle.  And they went to town, munching up the soybean aphids like nobody's business.

Pictures of soybean aphids en masse -- or any swarming bugs -- give me the creepy crawlies, so I won't post a photo of them here.  But if you want to see what soybean aphids look like, take a look at Purdue University's page about them. Or just trust me when I say they're little yellow-green bugs and they generally cover the undersides of soybean leaves.

  • So, that's good, right?  Multicolored Asian lady beetles eat lots of soybean aphids, and that helps our soybeans grow, farmers are happy, we're happy.  Right?
  • Well, the multicolored Asian lady beetle does some other things too.  They migrate each year in the fall.  And before they migrate, they all get together to make their migration plans.  OK, I don't know if that's what they're doing, but they do combine to form great colonies of lady beetles.
  • They like to find tall sheltered places, like the where the wall of a house meets the roof, or the side of a mountain, or the sides of tall buildings.  They generally prefer light-colored buildings as places to hang out.

Again, I am not a fan of pictures of swarming bugs, but if you want to see what a whole bunch of multicolored Asian lady beetles congregating on the arm of a sofa looks like, be my guest.

  • The way they call to other multicolored Asian lady beetles is by releasing pheromones.  In most cases, you and I can't consciously smell pheromones.  But we can smell the pheromones of the multicolored Asian lady beetle.  And the pheromones smell terrible.  People describe it as "foul," "unpleasant," or "acrid." 
  • That might not be such a big deal, if there were only one multicolored Asian lady beetle on your arm.  But hordes of them swarming on the side of your house?  If you smashed them with a broom, those stinky pheromones (or perhaps it's another substance, one designed to ward off predators) would come out of the leg joints of the smashed lady beetles, and you'd have a pretty stinky mess.
  • And mess is right, because not only do the pheromones stink, they can also stain.  So if they're in your house and they're climbing up your aunt's beige silk curtains or they're crawling across your pearl-colored Asian carpet, perhaps thinking finally they're home, and you smash them, now you've got stinky lady beetle juice all over your aunt's lovely curtains and your pearl-and-now-lady-beetle-colored Asian carpet.

The stain of smashed Asian lady beetles.  All over your nice carpet. 
(Photo from University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment)

  • So what, you say.  So they stink a little bit.  So they might make a stain if I smash them.  I just won't smash them.  I'll seal up the cracks and crevices of my house so they can't get in, they'll stay out side, I'll let them eat all my aphids, and we'll all be happy.
  • OK, well, they also bite.  The lady beetles native to the US do not bite.  But these foreign imports do.

This is the biting kind of ladybug (the multicolored Asian lady beetle).  You can identify it as such by the M or W shape on the lighter colored back of its neck behind the head.
(Photo from Maclean's in CA)

The multicolored Asian lady beetle can range in color from yellow to orange to russet, and the number of spots on their backs may vary.  But the one thing that is consistent is that M or W shape on the back of the neck.  You will also know it by its bite.
(Photo from Michigan State University)

  • Eh, big deal to that too, you say.  It's just a little bug.  The bite might sting a bit at first, but it's not like a mosquito bite, or a bee sting.  It's not going to itch and itch or really hurt or anything like that . . . right?
  • Um, sort of wrong.  It's true that the bite from a multicolored Asian lady beetle is more like an annoying pinch than anything especially painful.  But some people can have an allergic reaction.  And the way this allergy expresses itself is in the form of rhinoconjunctivitis, more commonly known as pink eye. 
  • If you've ever had pink eye, you know it's really unpleasant.  And people tend to back away from you like you have the plague.  If you watched Bob Costas covering the Olympics when he had pink eye, you know what I'm talking about.

Bob Costas, with pink eye.  He didn't get his from a reaction to a ladybug's bite, but let his painful-looking eyeballs be a cautionary tale to you nonetheless.
(Photo from Faboverfifty

  • Some sources also suggest that allergic reactions to the bite of a multicolored Asian lady beetle could trigger asthma.  And that is most certainly not fun.
  • Another problem is one which, in general, we hear about a lot when people talk about invasive species: lack of predators, and the inability of native species to compete.  In parts of southeast Michigan for example, the multicolored Asian lady beetle has so aggressively out-competed the native lady beetles for food, the native species are now severely threatened.
  • We're starting to learn enough about how ecosystems work to know that if even one plant or animal is threatened or on the verge of disappearing, that can have a huge ripple effect up the food chain.  So it's probable in another five or ten years or so, scientists will start telling us about some frog or bird or other creature that relies on the native ladybirds for food but can't find any to eat because there are only the noxious multicolored Asian lady beetles flying around, and so now the frog or bird or whatever it is has become at risk.

Here is an excellent drawing of the food chain involving a ladybug. The ladybug eats the aphid, the spider eats the ladybug, and the bird eats the spider.
(Drawing by Joshua Campes, posted at LALB)

  • Putting all this another way, the Asian ladybugs became an invasive species in this country -- and we were the ones responsible for the invasion.  You know, good intentions.  Trying to control a pest without using pesticide.  But unhappy results.
  • One final tidbit: the multicolored Asian lady beetle is cannibalistic.  That is, some of them eat their own larvae or their own eggs.  This seems to be an inherited trait, first of all.  But it also seems to be influenced by the number of aphids.  Lots of aphids, less cannibalism.  Few aphids, and they eat their young.  
  • I'm not saying we should bring in bags of some other aphid-eater from some other country to try to force the multicolored Asian lady beetle to eat their young. I'm just saying, something else to think about.  When you get a bite from a ladybug, did that ladybug use those same jaws to eat its own offspring?
  • Changes how you feel about ladybugs a little bit, doesn't it?

The ladybug. Cute classroom clipart, or vicious child-eating insect?
(Clip art from

Creature Control, Asian Lady Beetle
University of Minnesota Extension, Multicolored Asian lady beetles
Michigan State University Diagnostic Services, Multicolored Asian Ladybeetle
R L Koch, The multicolored Asian lady beetle, Harmonia axyridis: A review of its biology, uses in biological control, and non-target impacts J. Insect Sci., 2003, 3:32
Michael F. Potter et al., University of Kentucky, College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment, Asian Lady Beetle Infestation of Structures
Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Biological Control, Harmonia axyridis

Monday, May 11, 2015

Apple #710: Behind the Daily Apple -- Assembly and Images

This is part 3 in a series of posts about how I put together a typical Daily Apple entry.  The first was about how to construct a good search query to search Google for a given topic.  The second entry was about reading through the results and deciding what's a good source and what's not, comparing data among sources and looking for confirmation.  This one will be about putting it all together.  And also finding the images.

I have admittedly dragged my feet on this one.  Because I don't know how to explain to you, "and this is how I assimilate everything I've read and then I turn it all into one coherent thing."  Those of you who teach composition know it is pretty dang difficult to explain and teach this skill to someone else.  Try doing that, but in a typed-up way, and make it highly visual to keep people's short-attention-internet-span-interest.  Here goes.


Finding the right framework is part of the process of constructing a Daily Apple entry.  This part often takes some noodling.
(Image from

I guess what I usually do is I look for a framework that will help me organize or present the information.  Here are some typical frameworks that I might use:
  • A series of questions and answers.  I start by answering the first question that is where each Daily Apple entry begins.  Then something about what I find might lead to another question.  So I'll answer that.  Which then may lead to another question.  So I'll answer that. And so on. For example, in my entry on the Dollar Sign, I tried to answer how that $ came to be our standard symbol. Then I was curious if the symbols for other types of currencies were developed in the same way. So I looked up the Pound, the Yen, and the Euro.

The evolution of the dollar symbol might be similar to the evolution of the entry itself on the Dollar Sign.
(Image of the transformation from Wikimedia)

  • Introducing you to a species. What are the first things you want to know about a particular animal or plant? First, you want to know its name.  Sometimes this is not as straightforward as you might think. Then I would tell you two or three basic things about that species.  
    • If it's a plant or animal that I think most people are unfamiliar with, I would start with the most notable things about them. In the entry on Sea Fans, for example. I started with the name, which turned out to be a little tricky because people disagree about what's a sea fan/Gorgonian and what's not. Then I described them: they're soft corals, they have flexible, bendy skeletons, and they anchor themselves in sand or mud.  From there, I ventured into deeper details, about photosynthetic versus non-photosynthetic sea fans, the different ways they reproduce, and so on.  So I start with the general and work down to the more specific.

Sea Fans of various types.  The fact that there are lots of different types made that the primary thing I talked about, and organizing my description by those types determined the structure of the entry.
(Photo from a German site about marine zoology, with lots of photos, called Senckenbergische Naturforschende Gesellschaft)

    • If it's something that I think people already know the basics about -- jellyfish, for example.  i skipped all of the typical encyclopedia-type information and went straight to the interesting tidbits. Jellyfish have been on this planet for 650 million years.  Longer than sharks.  Jellyfish are always growing. But they only live 3-6 months.  A group of jellyfish is called a "smack."  And so on.  This is still an introduction, but I want to get you to the good stuff as soon as possible.

Jellyfish. You already know they have a lot of tentacles, and they sting, and yada yada yada, so I skipped all that.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • Sub-categories. Often when I'm researching a topic, I discover a few different collections of facts that I think are interesting.  I group like concepts together, and then I use boldface headers to make it clear where the subcategories are, in case people want to know only about one particular sub-topic.
    • Sometimes I'll decide, in the interests of time or my sanity and yours, only to tell you about one sub-category and leave the rest out of it.  For example, in my entry on Football Penalties, I could have told you about all sorts of sidebar things I discovered, like penalties for not wearing the approved uniform, which I thought were interesting but were a little off-topic.  Or I could have ventured into other types of before-the-snap penalties such as too many men on the field. But I decided to keep focused on motion-related penalties around the time of the snap.  Then I organized them according to penalties that get called against the offense and moved into penalties against the defense.

Football Penalties. I organized this entry by types of penalties, but I confined them to penalties that typically get called at the snap.
(Photo from Illinois Wesleyan University Magazine)

    • Or I might venture into lots of different sub-categories.  In the entry on Ice Cubes, for example, I started with how they were invented. Because without that, we're not talking about ice cubes.  Then I grouped the entry into things that ice does as it freezes -- it expands, warm water freezes faster, it forms ice spiks, how do you make ice cubes that are clear -- and then things ice does as it melts -- when does it melt faster or slower, and it melts from the bottom up.

The entry on Ice Cubes maybe got a little out of hand.  But there were so many interesting things to know!
(Photo of ice cubes from Habimama)

    • The nature of the thing itself often suggests what sort of structure I should use to describe it.
  • If it's a question about an historical event -- when were Escalators invented, for example -- the history provides the structure.  That is, I go chronologically.  First this guy with a beard came up with thus & so, then this other guy with a beard came up with this other thing, and then such & such enormous company bought the technology and now it's everywhere and nobody makes any money off it anymore, so now it's made mostly in China.  (Actually, in the case of escalators, they're now made mostly in Japan.)

The entry on Escalators followed a pretty typical structure for an historical entry -- a chronological description of how the things were invented and improved upon over time.
(Photo from Elevator World)

  • I do a lot of entries about word origins. A.k.a. etymology.  With those, I start with the obvious starting place: the dictionary definition.  I'll give the definitions my own take, summing up or giving examples.  I'll try to find pictures that illustrate the word at hand.  A good example of this is the entry on Jealousy vs. Envy (with Covetousness thrown in as a bonus).  I looked up the definition of envy, gave a little of my own input, then gave you a picture of the Wicked Witch of the West as a personification of envy.  Jealousy took a little more doing because we often use this word inappropriately. So I had to undo what we think it means by providing a little more definition & description of what it does mean.  Plus a couple pictures and even some video.  Finally, I looked up Covetousness, gave you the definition and my take on it, plus a picture of Hannibal Lecter.  Even though it's Buffalo Bill who was really the personification of covetousness gone wrong.  Then I summed it all up in a brief sentence for each term, hoping that would help the definitions to stick with you.

The Wicked Witch of the West, personifying Envy, and thereby assisting in my word origins-type entry.
(Photo sourced from The Pop Culture Divas)

  • Sometimes this type of entry will become more like a historical entry, if the meaning of the word changed over time.  As in my entry on Shampoo

Unless you'd read the entry on Shampoo, you might not know that it originally meant "massage."
(Screenshot from a video showing the entirety of the massage, which begins with a head massage.)


  • [^ note use of header. Key element in structuring an entry.]
  • Once I've got the thing typed up, then I'll search for and insert images.  I always hope that this process will take only about an hour, but it usually takes a really flippin' long time.
  • I scroll down through the entry and look for an image to correspond with some paragraph or statement often enough that an image will be visible somewhere on your screen most of the time. 
  • But if I'm in the midst of some complex explanation that I think is best uninterrupted, I'll wait until the end of the explanation to provide an image, and then I try to choose one that sums things up in some way.
  • I search for images in much the same manner that I search for text, except I use Google Images instead of Google Web.

Today's Google Image search on the word "framework" and the resulting images that come up.  You can see I chose the one in the second row down, second from the right.

  • It gets time-consuming because, first of all, Google Image's interface is cumbersome.  First, you click on the image you want.  Then a larger version of the image in a black box is displayed.  This takes a bit of time.  Then you have to decide whether you want to view just the image in the browser by itself, or go to the page where the image was originally posted.
  • If you choose to go to the page where the image originally appeared, sometimes you discover the page is not there anymore.  So if you used this image, it would disappear from your site pretty quickly.  Better to find something else.
  • Or you discover that the page has all sorts of copyright or do-not-touch notices surrounding the image. So, better look for something else.
  • Also, if the image belongs to a stock photo site, I don't use it.  Because they definitely want money for those images.  If it belongs to a major news source like Getty or the AP, I usually try to find something else.  Though sometimes, there just isn't another image like it.  So I might post it anyway, since this blog is definitely not a for-profit venture.  I don't make any money from this site, no one pays me anything for anything, and the purpose of this blog is for educational purposes.  So I think Fair Use applies.  Still, I don't want to take any unnecessary chances if I don't have to.
  • Usually I like to the image.  I type in the code [left pointybracket]imgsrc[equalssign][space][quotationmark][complete URL][space][slash][right pointybracket].  I think linking to the image is more respectful of the original poster of the image.  Though some people disagree.  Some people really dislike this practice.
  • If I link to an image of, let's say, Don Cornelius's on my site, when you look at my page, the code is going to query Don Cornelius's page to provide the image from that page to mine. This will tax Don Cornelius's server.  Some people get mad about this, and they don't like it that my page is drawing on their server's energy or bandwidth or whatever it is.  It has happened in a couple cases when a page owner has substituted an image I linked to with something extremely rude or obscene and I didn't know about it until a faithful Daily Apple reader alerted me to the fact. 

Oh my gosh, I picked Don Cornelius's name out of the blue.  I completely forgot that he shot himself.  Well, this is the image of the foundation that his son started in order to provide awareness, prevention, and support for those contemplating suicide and for those who love them. I've linked to this image from that site.
(Image from the Don Cornelius Foundation)

  • Another option is to copy the image and upload it to my site. This seems to me to be much more like stealing.  I'm copying the file to my hard drive and uploading the copied file to my web page.  Conversely, in linking to the image, I'm letting you keep that actual file, and I'm only making a connection to it.
  • The downside to linking to images as opposed to copying them is you get "link rot." The site that hosted the image changes or goes away, so then the image can't be displayed.  Well, them's the breaks, I think.  Sometimes I go through old pages and update them with new images, but that takes time.
  • Whether linked to or more rarely copied, I usually reduce the size of the image somewhat.  I figure if I'm going to provide a version of someone else's image, it ought to be a little less optimal than the original.  Usually the full size version is to big for the blog's frame, but even so, I usually reduce the size a smidge.
  • I also always give a credit beneath the caption with a link to the page where I found the image.  I provide a deep link to the exact page if I can, rather than to the site's home page as many people do.  I do this so that if someone wants to see that image in its full-size glory, or in its original context, they can.  Or maybe they want to see what other images this site or person has; the link allows a reader to go there.  Or in some cases I'm linking to an image on a shopping website, so the link allows the reader to go to the page where that product is being sold.
  • In some cases, I took the picture.  I credit myself: Photo by the Apple Lady. 

Sunset in Sarasota Bay. I took this photo.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)
  • As you might imagine, this business of searching for images, linking to them, typing the caption, formatting the size of the image and the size of the caption is time-consuming.
  • But sometimes in the process of looking for images and looking at the page where the image is posted, I discover new facts.  I might learn something that my textual search didn't turn up, or I might discover a clarification of something I didn't understand and was going to omit.  So sometimes I have to go back and revise the text I already typed up.  In a few rare cases, I've had to re-write half the entry, based on information I found this way.
  • So it is worth the time to add images.  The real reason I've learned the value of images is that, with the exception of a few die-hard regular readers, the majority of the traffic that comes to my site arrives here thanks to an image search. I think this is because I usually provide descriptive captions beneath the images, and Google uses captions as key terms in their image search process.  I like to think my content is witty and engaging, but really, most people only come here for the pictures.
  • What's even more disheartening is that most "strangers" who come to the Daily Apple -- and this is the vast majority of the traffic here -- only stay for about 1 second. 

  • Every once in a while, a new visitor will come here from the results of a Google search, check out the Daily Apple page they were brought to, and then they'll look around at a few other pages. They might click on a link to one or two Ripe Apples, or they might click on a Subject category in the right frame and browse there for a bit.  I especially enjoy those visits.
  • The visits that are really the most gratifying are those when someone comes to a Daily Apple page, stays for a good 10 or 15 minutes, clicks on one of the Sources at the bottom of each entry, and then comes back.  To me, that says the reader has been fully engaged--enough to want to know more about some aspect of the entry, and enough to want to come back.  Those are the ones I consider A+ visits.
  • Of the visits from strangers, that is.  The other kind of A+ visits are those from people who are regular readers, who check this here Daily Apple regularly.  Regularly enough to ask me a question.  Regularly enough to want to know how this thing gets put together.  
  • To you my, my faithful Daily Apple Reader, I thank you for reading.  I thank you for asking questions. Never stop doing either one.
  • Love, Your Apple Lady

(Photo from Chauncey's in the UK)

Monday, April 27, 2015

Apple #709: Behind the Daily Apple -- Doing the Research

This is part two in a series of entries that attempt to answer the question, how does the Apple Lady do what she does?  (For all you dirty-minded folks out there, that means how do I assemble these here Daily Apples.)

The first part talked about how to construct a search query that yields targeted results.  The next step in what I do is to read what I find, to follow what information I find -- which can sometimes surprise me -- and then organize it in a coherent way and type it up.

Mahalia (the faithful Apple reader who requested this), I've been thinking about this for a week, and I'm still a bit stumped as to how to represent this process for you in a way that will be neither so detailed as to be tedious nor so glossed-over as to be useless.  I might like to have two columns of text, one where I type up what would be the Daily Apple entry, and another beside it where I comment on how I arrived at thus & so.  But Blogger doesn't allow for any two-column shenanigans.  So I'll have to come up with another method.

You might say we're getting to the heart of the Daily Apple in this entry. (The apple, by the way, is a Pink Lady.)
(Photo from Chauncey's in the UK)

The Question

First things first. Every entry starts with the question at hand.  If I don't have a question from a faithful or interested reader, I come up with my own.  It's usually some oddment or other that I run into either in conversation during the week, or occasionally it's something in the news that I don't understand entirely, or sometimes there is no unanswered question nagging me -- or at least, not one that comes to mind when I sit down to assemble one of these here Daily Apples -- so I try to think of something.  These are usually my criteria:
  • A question whose answer I don't already know
  • The topic is something everyday, nothing arcane like how nanospheres work, but rather something that most of us encounter or could encounter in our daily lives
  • I try to keep the question focused. Nothing so general as "tell me everything about tigers." Much as I like tigers and do want to know as much about them as possible, I've learned that if my topic is too general, I find myself reproducing encyclopedia entries. I'd rather choose a topic that is a little more focused, like "what noises do tigers make" because I think I'd have a better chance of telling you something you don't already know, and also because this is a way to try to keep my entries not so long that no one will read them.  I have a tendency to go long.

For this meta-Apple, I am going to violate one of my criteria and choose a question whose answer I already know: what's up with the biting ladybugs?  To get a bit more specific, where did they come from?  Did they always bite, or is this a new thing?

I'm choosing a known topic to give myself a better shot at showing you how I do what I do.  No surprises in the searching, no need to completely re-work the organization of the entry, or other apple-tastrophes like that.

Once I've stated the question, I usually put a picture just beneath it.  I try to find a picture that typifies the entry as a whole, in case that picture becomes the thumbnail associated with the entry.  I want the image to be something colorful or engaging, something that makes you want to click on or read the entry.

In this case, I could show you a picture of swarming or biting ladybugs, but I do not want to give you the itchies right off the bat.  Instead, I'll just show you a lot of ladybugs.  Or maybe just one.

Asian ladybug. This kind bites.
(Photo from GardenWeb)

The process of how I find the images and how I link to them -- all that I'll cover in another entry about images.

The Search

The next thing that happens is I go do a lot of Googling.  How I do the Googling, how I build a search query I discussed in the previous entry, so I won't go through all that again.

What I'm going to show you instead is what I look for when I've done the search query, and how I proceed through the results I get.

Today's results of a Google search for "biting ladybugs"

So I started out with a pretty unprofessional search query, just typing in biting ladybugs.  No quotation marks or anything.  This was my first search on the topic, and I just wanted to throw something out there and see what came back, see if I needed to refine my search at all, and in what way.

I also wanted to get a sense of the general public's perception about ladybugs.  Do lots of people know that ladybugs bite?  Do some people think that they don't?

Sometimes the mis-information about a topic can tell you something pretty interesting about the topic itself, so much so that the mis-information itself can become the interesting to talk about.  Like, for example, if I decided to do a Daily Apple on the roundness of the Earth, I would absolutely have to talk about the fact that some people persist in believing that the Earth is flat. [insert gif of someone shuddering here]

But in this case, it looks like lots of people do know that ladybugs bite, though they seem to be rather stunned by this, or unable to believe that something as apparently innocuous as a ladybug would ever bite someone.  I'm gathering this from the questions that have been posed:  "Do Ladybugs (the garden variety ladybug we all know and love) bite? My mother insists that she received a nasty bite from a ladybug" and "I looked up whether lady bugs bite after being bitten by one today."

So I might want to begin the answer part of my entry with something like this:

  • Yes, it's true.  The ladybugs that you so loved when you were small, the ones whose cutout shapes decorated the walls of your pre-school and kindergarten classrooms, do bite.  
  • Or at least, one species that lives here now does.
(I'm getting ahead of myself here.  I'm revealing part of the answer that I already know.)

The Sources

Let's look at the results of my search again, more closely.  There are several entries from "homemade" sites like mine -- regular Joe or Jane Schmos typing up their experiences with ladybugs.  Their experiences might be very interesting, or their research could be very reliable.  Heck, your Daily Apple is a "homemade" site.  But I wouldn't choose these as the FIRST site I check on a topic.  If there were no other good results, I might go to a homemade site first, but then I would look for confirming information from some other, more traditionally reliable sites.

Another place I would put lower on my list is the hit from, which is a site where people post questions they want answered, and then they vote on what they think is the best answer--sort of like, or Ask Yahoo, or those other public sites where anyone can post an answer, and anyone can decide it's a good one.

And while we're on the subject of less-favorable sources, let's talk about Wikipedia.  Wikipedia can be a great place TO START.  Oftentimes there's stuff in a Wikipedia entry that I didn't know, and that's either because I'm not fully informed, or else it's because somebody made up some crap or didn't cite their sources and I can't verify it.

Wikipedia.  Nice place to visit, but you don't want to live there.
(Image from Wikipedia Commons)

So if I use Wikipedia at all, I consider it a jumping-off point.  If I do look at it, I try to find at least two other sources -- yes, two -- that back up what's on Wikipedia.  If I find some tidbit of information on Wikipedia first, I try to follow it to its source and then I look for at least one other page or site that discusses that tidbit.  Usually when I do that, I discover qualifications, some additional detail that reveals something was glossed over in the Wikipedia entry, or explained badly or incompletely.  This is another reason I double- and triple-check information I find on Wikipedia.

Only when I feel like I've got a solid answer that I can explain clearly to myself as well as to you, and that I've used sources I feel confident about recommending do I post something.

Your Apple Lady does not want to be telling you a bunch of lies & made-up junk, that's for sure.

In this case, the keyword snapshot that pops up the the Wikipedia link sounds pretty interesting:  "Sometimes, the beetles will bite humans, presumably in an attempt to acquire salt. . . "  Well, that would be interesting to know, wouldn't it?  WHY ladybugs bite?  That's sort of on the order of what do women want, in the insect world, isn't it?

But this is a little bit farther down the line than we are right now.  We still need to talk more about the fact that ladybugs do bite.  This is another thing I want to point out.  I don't like to give you only yes/no answers.  I like to give you context.  Detail.  Background.  The bigger picture.  So you don't just know that ladybugs bite, you know which ones, in what circumstances, maybe in what parts of the country or what parts of the world, and so on.  You're more likely to remember the yes/no answer if you've got more parts of that bigger picture in your mind.  And, frankly, I like to know the details.  Hate to break it to you, but I'm looking this stuff up as much for me as for you.

Screenshot of Creature Control's page on the Asian Lady Beetle

OK, the first link I clicked on was the one to Creature Control's site.  It was second on the Google results list, after the one that sounded homemade.  Usually Google puts at the top pages that are reliable or authoritative or that are really strongly focused on the topic at hand.  So I trusted Google to give me better results at the top.

This is information from a commercial site.  Meaning, Creature Control is a business -- in this case, a pest exterminating business, like Orkin -- and they are posting information about one of the pests they exterminate.  These are folks who deal with bugs on a daily basis, so they ought to know about these bugs.

However, sometimes these sorts of things are typed up by people who are not so good at the proofreading, or people whose knowledge is so pigeonholed as to be incomplete, or who round out their information with rumor or wild guesses or other kind of slipshod information.  So I've learned to regard pages like these as a pretty good place to start, but another type of source to be verified.

Here is Creature Control's introductory paragraph:

The Asian lady beetle (not to be confused with the indigenous American ladybug) is an invasive species of the Coccinellidae family introduced into the United States in 1988 for the purpose of reducing native aphid populations. Since 1988, they have spread throughout North America, in most places displacing the native ladybug populations to become the dominant Coccinellidae beetle. Because of their destruction of plant life and their aggressive tendency to bite, Asianlady beetles are commonly considered a nuisance pest. [Creature Control, Asian Lady Beetle]

You can see what I mean about the proofreading -- sometimes "Asian lady" is one word, sometimes two, Coccinellidae is sometimes italicized, sometimes not.  The reason I point this out is not to be annoying (well, typos do annoy me), but because this can be a sign that the information itself is similarly treated with half-attentive care.

In this case, after having looked at several other sites on the topic, I can tell you that Creature Control has done a really good job with the facts here.  Other sites might say the same sort of thing more succinctly or with better spelling, or with a little more detail, but they all back up what Creature Control says here.

So I would keep this page open as one of my tabs to refer to, and then I would go back to my search results and look at the next one that catches my eye.

Let's look at a page that I would consider more authoritative.

Screenshot of Michigan State University's Diagnostic Services page on Multicolored Asian Ladybeetles

A lot of state universities in the US have what are usually called Extension services.  These are departments or branches within the university, usually associated with agriculture or farming, which provide information and assistance to the public.  My mom used to call the MSU extension in our city (she was an MSU grad) whenever she found a bug she couldn't identify in the house or in the yard.  They were glad to know about these bugs because it helped them in their research to know which bugs were appearing where, and they would tell my mom what kind of bug it was, was it a good or a bad thing that it was in the house or the yard, and what should she do if she wanted to get rid of it.

That was before the days of the internet.  Now, instead of calling their offices, you can search their website.

So I happen to know that these Extension Service people, and by extension (hah!) their websites, can be very helpful in explaining their bug & plant research to the public.  This Diagnostic Services page looks like it might be a service like that.  So I am likely to grant them a lot of credibility.

They are referring to these ladybugs by their species name (Harmonia axyridis), and they are also giving several common names for it: ladybeetle or ladybug in general, and Multicolored Asian Ladybeetle in particular.

The problem is, there is a TON of information here.  They're talking about what the larvae look like, and how the eggs hatch, and what the pupae do.  In most cases, I omit this level of detail.  Only if there were some bizarre fact that I think it would be fun to point out (let's pretend, for example, they said that the larvae of these ladybugs drive cars by the time they're two weeks old!), then I might include something from that panoply of detail.  But if it isn't related to the topic at hand, or if it doesn't shed more light on the whys and wherefores of the topic at hand, then I'll skip passing it on to you.

But let me show you one paragraph of theirs.  Here you can see they provide a lot more detail about the introduction of this ladybug into the United States than the Creature Control page did:

The multicolored Asian lady beetle is a native of Asia. There were several attempts to introduce the beetle into the southeastern and southwestern portions of the United States to help control aphids on pecan trees back in the late 70’s. Some say that none of these deliberate attempts succeeded, but that the beetle became established after ‘jumping ship’ somewhere along the Gulf coast. Since then it has spread rapidly throughout the US and southern Canada. It was first found in Ontario in 1992. Despite popular rumors, the beetle was not released by the DNR, MSU, or chemical companies. One reason that might explain their large numbers is our newest aphid pest, the soybean aphid. This aphid was discovered in Michigan and other Midwestern states during the summer of 2000. Thousands of these aphids can occur on a single soybean plant and the Asian Multicolored Ladybeetle is taking advantage of this unlimited food source. Soybean aphid populations were very high in 2001 (the last time we saw large populations of the Asian lady beetle), and again this past summer. Many of the soybean plants examined at our diagnostic lab have had a dozen or so ladybeetle larvae munching away on the hapless aphids. There are multiple generations of the beetle during the summer and the adults can live up to three years. [Michigan State University, Multicolored Asian Ladybeetle]

They say the ladybug was introduced in the late 1970s.  Creature Control said 1988.  So I'm going to have to find other sources that confirm either one of those dates, or perhaps clarify why these two sources differ.

But they also say this ladybug was introduced to control aphids, and they also mention pecan trees (Creature Control mentioned the pecan trees in another paragraph on their page), so I'm feeling pretty good about those two basic facts.

This paragraph really loses its focus, though. It starts out talking about the introduction of the ladybugs, moves into the aphids that the ladybugs ate, then the soybean aphids in particular (when was "this past summer," exactly?), and finishes with how many generations of the beetle live in one summer.  These facts might all be solid and verifiable, but it will take some organization to straighten out all this information.  Whoever wrote this probably knows a ton of stuff, and gets excited about what they know, and all their knowledge is linked together, so it all comes out in one great lump.

I don't want to go through every single source exhaustively because I think you would get profoundly bored, but let me show you one more in particular.  Let's talk about that Wikipedia entry.

Screenshot of the Wikipedia page on Harmonia axyridis, the kind of ladybug that bites

There's lots of general information up front about the colors of this ladybug -- "ranging from yellow-orange to black" -- and how many spots -- between 0 and 22 -- which is helpful information, but again, details I would verify elsewhere.

But let's look at their paragraph about how these ladybugs were introduced into the United States, so we can compare it to our other two sources:

This species became established in North America as the result of introductions into the United States in an attempt to control the spread of aphids. In the last three decades, this insect has spread throughout the United States and Canada, and has been a prominent factor in controlling aphid populations. In the US, the first introductions took place as far back as 1916. The species repeatedly failed to establish in the wild after successfully controlling aphid populations, but an established population of beetles was observed in the wild near New Orleans, Louisiana, around 1988. In the following years, it quickly spread to other states, being occasionally observed in the Midwest within five to seven years and becoming common in the region by about 2000. The species was also established in the Northwest by 1991, and the Northeast by 1994, aided by additional introductions from the native range, rather than just reaching there from the Southeast. Reportedly, it has heavily fed on soybean aphids (which recently appeared in the US after coming from China), supposedly saving farmers vast sums of money in 2001. [Wikipedia, Harmonia axyridis]

Pretty much dovetails with the other two. Wikipedia says the first introduction of this ladybug happened as long ago as 1916.  Hmm, when three sources disagree so wildly, that either means somebody is choosing to omit some instance in favor of another for some reason, or else that nobody is really sure, and so I won't be able to give you an exact, definite date.

There's that date 1988, though, when an established population was observed in the wild near New Orleans.  I think that might be what MSU meant when they said the ladybugs "jumped ship" near the Gulf Coast.  We've got references here, too, to the soybean aphid, and the timeline seems to match up pretty well with that of MSU's.

So I would say this entry, or at least this paragraph from this entry, seems to be pretty reliable.  I'll want to look at a couple more pages, though, to verify further and round things out.

Further Digging -- and Finding Gold

But the real reason I want to look at the Wikipedia entry is because of the sources.  Here is their sub-section on the Biology and Behavior of this bug:

Screenshot of the Biology and behavior subsection in Wikipedia's entry on Harmonia axyridis, the ladybug that bites

Since you have to click on that screenshot to read it, unfortunately, let me reproduce a bit of it to show you what I'm after:

These insects will "reflex bleed" when agitated, releasing hemolymph from their legs. The liquid has a foul odour (similar to that of dead leaves) and can cause stains. Some people have allergic reactions, including allergic rhinoconjunctivitis when exposed to these beetles.[1] Sometimes, the beetles will bite humans,[1] presumably in an attempt to acquire salt, although many people feel a pricking sensation as a lady beetle walks across the skin, which is just the pressure from the ladybird's feet. Bites normally do no more harm than cause irritation, although a small number of people are allergic to bites.[15]

First of all, you'll note that these ladybugs release a chemical that stinks like dead leaves, and to which some people are allergic.  (Allergic rhinoconjunctivitis is pink eye, by the way.)  Included here is that sentence that mentions the possibility that ladybugs might only be biting for salt.  I really want to verify that with another source, and this is where I want to point out those footnote reference numbers.

Those note numbers will take you down to the references at the bottom of the Wikipedia entry, which are then linked to the site where that source material appears.  In the case of these references, many of the links have died or moved or gone away, so it's turned out to be a little tricky tracking down the sources for the information here.  And you'll notice that the statement about doing it for the salt is not footnoted.  So where that bit of information came from, I'm not sure.

But the sources do turn up a goldmine.  Among other things, there's a link to an article published in The Journal of Insect Science in 2003 -- it doesn't get much more authoritative than that on the free internet -- and that article talks about how these ladybugs are cannibals!  Not that cannibalism is that rare in the insect and animal world, so it's more the shock value of saying "these ladybugs are cannibals!"  But that little fact is definitely going into the entry.  Nothing to do with the biting of people, but it's one of those bizarre tidbits I like to pass along.

The article also talks about how these ladybugs are especially problematic in vineyards, because they love to eat lots of fruit including grapes, and so they'll swarm on the grapes and vines, and the harvesters can't help but crush the ladybugs along with the grapes in the harvest.  Now that's a problem and a half.  Again, something else I would include.

They also confirm a lot of things that are in that Creature Control page.  I guess Google knew what it was doing, after all, when it put that Creature Control page high on its results list.

Nothing in this article about the salt, though.  So I'm going to do a search on Harmonia axyridis and salt.

The results?  That Wikipedia entry, another page that has copied the Wikipedia entry verbatim, another page that happens to mention Salt Lake City.  Otherwise, nada.

OK, what about Harmonia axyridis and sodium?  All I get is an extremely technical page describing what I think are the genomic and protein structures, which include sodium, in this species.  Nothing about biting, nothing about the bugs themselves wanting to eat salt.

But I do find on another University Extension Service page, this time from Minnesota, this sentence:

These bites are incidental, as the beetles are presumably searching for moisture or food.

That "presumably" word makes me suspect that this page might be the source for what Wikipedia said about salt.

Regardless, I am not going to repeat Wikipedia's supposition about salt, since I can't verify it, and since whoever wrote that entry didn't cite their source.  But I do feel pretty confident about saying what Minnesota's Extension Service said that maybe the ladybugs are looking for sustenance.  But I'll be sure to include that "maybe."

So this gives you an idea of how I go back & forth between sources, how I use them to verify or confirm each other, or to connect me to additional sources for further information.  I often discover further clarifications or qualifications the further I dig, and sometimes those clarifications that people omit when they're trying to generalize turn out to be pretty interesting. 

What's Next

I wanted to present you with a complete entry at the end of this discussion, but I have to go to bed now. So maybe what I'll do instead is give you the text of the entry next time, maybe with some meta-discussion about how I made decisions here & there about what to include and in what order.  Because finding the images takes a long time, I imagine talking about the images will have to be yet another entry of its own.

Sorry there weren't more pictures with this one.  Here, I'll put in one last picture.

This is the biting kind of ladybug.  You can identify it as such by the M or W shape on the lighter colored back of its neck behind the head.
(Photo from Maclean's in CA)

[since I'm giving you the behind-the-scenes view, I'll give you the plain, unadulterated URLs]