If you’re in the UK, then you’ll be familiar with a favourite beetle from childhood, fondly known as a ladybird; however, if you in the USA, then you’ll be wondering what on earth a ladybird is – well it’s what you guys call a ladybug. There’s also another name to throw into the mix – preferred by scientists – ladybeetle. Some parts of the UK even call them bishy barnabees! As well as these names, the Irish, Russians and Polish call them God’s Little Cow and in Hebrew, they’re Moses’ Little Cow, whilst in Turkey, they’re called the good luck bug – these guys really seem to command a wide variety of titles, but whatever you call these little beetles, this is a blog devoted to them.. and you may be in for a few surprises!
So why are they sometimes given the title of ‘lady’? Well, they’ve long been associated with Our Lady (the Virgin Mary) in Christian culture (with the seven spots on some species being seen as representing the seven trials of Mary). Another interpretation was that if a plague of aphids were attacking the crops, then the farmers would pray to the Virgin Mary for help and when the ladybirds rolled up to the rescue, they were seen as being sent by Her.
Ladybirds (I’ll use that name as I’ve always known them as that) belong to a family of small beetles called Coccinellidae, which are a widespread group, who’s size ranges from 0.8 to 18mm in length (0.03 to 0.7 inches). They are indeed beetles and despite referring to them as such, they’re not bugs (or birds for that matter!!)
Interestingly, ladybirds smell with their feet! (Hope they’re careful where they tread in that case!!) They have wings enclosed in that iconic wing case and they beat these at a rapidly amazing 85 strokes a second – that’s some going – although quite a bit slower than bees, which achieve over twice that speed.
There are around 5,000 species throughout the world. One particular species seems to be a little too successful – the Harlequin ladybird – which has quickly spread across the USA since its introduction from Asia to control pests and has crossed the Atlantic to reach UK shores, where it’s become prevalent in less than ten years – now it marches on into Europe. The problem with the Harlequins is that they have voracious appetites and they outcompete other ladybird varieties, even consuming their eggs and larvae, all of which, makes them a threat to native ladybird species.
Whilst we tend to immediately think of ladybirds as being red, their colours can vary from the bright reds, orange and yellows to the shadier greys, browns and blacks. Whilst lots of these critters sport spots, some have stripes and others no markings at all. By the way, did you think that the number of spots shows the insect’s age? Well sorry, that’s an old wives’ tale – the number of spots is determined by the species type, rather than how old an individual is.
The ladybirds we are probably most familiar with – the red with black spots variety – are omnivores, eating both plant material and pest species such as aphids. As such, they are a welcomed sight in any garden and are both a farmer’s and a gardener’s buddy as they help keep the pests down and are recognised as significant biological pest controllers.
That said, there are some species of ladybirds, such as the Mexican bean beetle, that are herbivores and they can become a pest themselves, causing damage to plants and crops from their vegetational munching. So not all ladybirds are a welcome sight in the fields!
Speaking of food, ladybirds are a food source, providing a snack to birds, wasps, frogs, spiders and dragonflies. Although, beware would-be predators – as these critters aren’t brightly coloured for nothing – this is a warning that these guys aren’t tasty snacks but do indeed taste awful, due to their producing toxic chemicals to defend themselves. Therefore, it’s only the hunters that are immune to this defence that can successfully tuck in.
Staying on the subject of food – did you know that some ladybirds are cannibals? Yes, the grim reality is that, when newly hatched, the youngsters will sometimes look for the nearest source of food around them – this could be nearby aphids – or it could be their as yet unhatched brothers and sisters. Yes, ladybird larvae (which incidentally look more like tiny alligators rather than ladybirds) will prey upon their sibling eggs to reduce competition and give themselves a head start in life (surely that’s taking sibling rivalry too far!) Once they’re developed, the larvae go on to pupate, emerging as the fully formed adults that we’re so familiar with.
Ladybirds are considered pretty little insects and are much beloved by kids – they appear in nursery rhymes and children’s’ literature. In Russia, Italy and Turkey it’s believed that the sight of a ladybird will mean a wish you make will be granted. Indeed, many a brand has adopted the ladybird as its name and symbol eg ladybird books for children; ladybird kids’ clothes. They’re image is also used as a symbol against violent crime in the Netherlands and the emblem of the People’s Party of Finland. They’re also official state insects in New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Massachusetts and Delaware – so they’re a popular brand all round.
However, the unadulterated affection that these guys command belies a hidden truth – ladybirds are by nature very promiscuous! They choose to mate often, with multiple partners and STDs in the ladybird community are rife, particularly sexually transmitted mites, which act as parasites, feeding on the ladybirds’ blood and impacting their breeding capacity.
In the USA, ladybirds are sometimes called Halloween bugs, as they begin to gather in large numbers to prepare themselves for the cold weather ahead. Indeed, ladybirds over winter in groups, where they pick a sheltered space and huddle together to keep as warm as possible. They seek out a moist environment, where they can sustain themselves with water and go into hibernation (they’re unable to fly in cold weather and their food sources disappear during the coldest months, so this is their survival strategy). This way, providing the winter hasn’t been too harsh or long, they will emerge in spring to throw themselves back into one of their favourite activities – mating! These guys sure like to make the most of their one year of life!
Did you know that a group of ladybirds is called a loveliness? (no I didn’t make that up!) This sweet collective noun demonstrates just how much fondness we hold for these little insects. However, truth be told, these seemingly delightful lovelies have managed to keep their rather seedy side a secret from us and instead of seeing them as promiscuous cannibals, we see them as delightful, friendly, little insects.
It goes to show that appearances can be deceptive…..