A nine-spotted lady bug,  or Coccinella novemnotata, is seen here.

A nine-spotted lady bug, or Coccinella novemnotata, is seen here. Credit: Todd A. Ugine

The nine-spotted ladybug is making a comeback and it’s a miracle, scientists say, because they feared for a while that the polka-dot beetle was on a slippery slide into extinction.

Nine-spotted ladybugs are New York’s official state insect, a vaunted position of honor that would be appreciated by just about any bug — maybe even cockroaches.

But in 1982, the reddish bugs with nine big black spots vanished without a trace. Nary a nine-spotted lady could be found anywhere from Nassau to Buffalo. Then, five years ago, a single nine-spotted was found on Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett, the first nine-spotted ladybug seen in nearly 30 years. After that finding, scientists from Cornell University in Ithaca descended on the farm and found a few more.

They have been breeding the bugs under laboratory conditions ever since, but now need the help of “citizen scientists” to get the nine-spotted ladybugs back into gardens, yards and farms.

The call for citizens to become scientists is being issued from Cornell’s Lost Ladybug Project, a program founded at the university 16 years ago when the beetle’s disappearance was first deemed a crisis.

“Before its decline, it was a particularly common ladybug,” said Rebecca Rice Smyth, an entomologist with the project. “That means it was doing good pest management for our crops.”

The bug vanished not only in New York, but across the country, Smyth said.

Calling for the public’s help is one way to get the ladybugs to spread widely and to strengthen their numbers again. The project was planning to stop sending out the larvae this week, but decided to extend sales to anyone interested for a few more days.

Fifty larvae cost $50 and can be ordered from Cornell’s website: www.lostladybug.org/ladybug-larvae-sales-1114.php

“The problem is that we don’t have the diversity in ladybug species that we used to and that means the ecosystem doesn’t have one of its key species for biodiversity,” Smyth said.

The nine-spotted ladybug, known scientifically as Coccinella novemnotata, was replaced by an invasive ladybug species from China, which adapted well in the United States, out-competing the nine-spotted for food and habitat space.

Smyth said Long Island is a particularly welcome habitat for the bug. And had the lone nine-spotted lady not been found in 2011, the project probably would not be as far along as it is now.

Life has been tough for the nine-spotted ladybug. A decade ago, the little creature almost lost its position as the official state insect.

Members of the New York State Assembly, miffed that no one had seen one, voted in 2006 to oust the beetle from its elevated status.

Scientists, including the founder of the Lost Ladybug Project, were alarmed. The Senate, however, saved the lady as New York’s official insect when it failed to unanimously vote in favor of casting it aside.

Its decline, Symth said, remains serious and follows the loss of several other insect species, such as honeybees, a crisis that’s mounting around the globe.

If citizens act as scientists, they can help increase the nine-spotted’s numbers, Smyth said.

“As far as iconic garden residents go, the nine-spotted lady beetle is charming,” said entomologist Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann of the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program in Babylon. She is not connected with the Lost Ladybug Project.

The nine-spotted, Gangloff-Kaufmann said, is not a pest — but is, in all respects, a purebred eating machine.

“They are important because they are predators of many soft-bodied insects and they are beneficial when they are around.”

Lady beetles, she said, love to dine on aphids and transform themselves into a living version of the antique video game chomper — Pac Man — eating aphids as if they were dots.

“If you were to watch a lab dish full of aphids with a lady beetle in it, it would be like seeing a machine destroying them. Sometimes they’ll grab an aphid and destroy it, but they won’t even eat it. It’s like a cat playing with a mouse.”

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