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]

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