An all-you-can-eat buffet for Adelphi’s ladybug army

Red army: Adelphi University is releasing tens of thousands of ladybugs this summer to protect its picturesque campus against destructive aphids.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

It’s that time of the year at Adelphi University, which is continuing an environmentally friendly tradition this summer with the help of some tiny soldiers.

The university, which maintains a treelined 75-acre campus in Garden City, has long eschewed the use of chemical fertilizers in the maintenance of its picturesque lawns, shrubs and other foliage.

Manager Robert Conaghan and his grounds crew opt instead for organic fertilizers and a program of natural pest controls – including the release of thousands of carnivorous ladybugs.

Known in scientific circles as Coccinellidae, the widespread family of small, predatory beetles – ranging in size from eight-tenths of a millimeter to 18 millimeters – provide a natural protection against aphids, mortal enemy of the nearly 70 species of trees and shrubs gracing Adelphi’s scenic campus.

Aphids are miniscule sap-suckers that, in large numbers, can prove extremely damaging to trees and other vegetation. And when they’re around, their numbers tend to be large: The flightless females of the species reproduce without the involvement of males (sorry, dudes) and do so profusely, an overwhelming strength-in-numbers defense against many predators looking for a light snack.

The natural: Grounds crew manager Robert Canaghan and friends on the Adelphi University campus.

That includes Coccinellidae, which are hungry little buggers. The average ladybug will eat up to 50 aphids (and other teensy-weensy pests) per day and some 5,000 in its lifetime, according to Adelphi.

That makes the distinctively polka-dotted beetles a great natural defense against destructive organisms like aphids, which not only suck the life out of plants (literally) by consuming sap but also act as “disease vectors,” transmitting infectious pathogens from plant to plant.

There are more effective chemical fertilizers available, but according to Conaghan, the use of organic defenses against aphids and other would-be scenery shredders trumps any weed-be-gone advantage the school might gain by spraying poisons around the grounds.

“We do have a few weeds and clover in our lawns,” noted the grounds crew manager, who doubles as the university’s associate director of facilities management. “But that’s OK.”

Certainly, a few dandelions spread throughout Adelphi’s lush lawns haven’t stopped the university from earning copious recognition for its physical beauty. The Princeton Review ranks the Garden City university among its Green Colleges, denoting its “exceptional commitment” to sustainability; Adelphi also won a 2017 Bethpage Best of Long Island award for Best Public Garden.

Feeding frenzy: An individual ladybug will eat up to 5,000 aphids (and other tiny pests) in its lifetime.

And the Sierra Club has named Adelphi one of its “Cool Schools,” based largely on the fact that the main Garden City campus is a registered arboretum. The campus officially become a card-carrying member of the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta in 2002.

On the front line of the battle to keep Adelphi beautiful (and chemical-free) is the ladybug army. Some 18,000 of the red-and-black soldiers were released Wednesday, with another squad of equal numbers slated to see action next month – part of an annual ritual that has kept Adelphi chemical fertilizer-free for 15 years.

According to Conaghan, the all-natural defense strategy is well worth a few weeds sprouting up here and there.

“I would rather see a student laying on the grass looking at a rabbit eating clover, or a bee feeding on a dandelion,” he said Wednesday, “than wonder if the poison that was applied last week is causing them any harm.”


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