I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for ladybirds. I can’t remember now whether I just enjoyed seeing their bright shiny toy-like bodies on plants in the garden when I was a child, or whether I was influenced by my beloved Ladybird book collection – probably a bit of both!
Ladybirds are generally considered useful insects – nature’s own ‘pest’ controllers – and far more effective than poisonous chemicals. A few species feed on plants or mildew but most ladybirds eat aphids, like greenfly, or scale insects. Both are garden pests and this is why gardeners love to see ladybirds. The seven-spot ladybird can eat 5000 aphids during its year-long lifespan – not bad!
Their bright colour and pattern not only make them attractive visitors to the garden, but also help to protect them by warning potential predators of their distastefulness. Their colouring is a reminder to any animals that have tried to eat their kind before: ‘I taste foul’.
They come in a range of colours, most commonly yellow, orange, or scarlet with small black spots on their wing covers. There are 2-spot, 5-spot, 7-spot… and so on right up to 24-spot! One does have to wonder, with so many spots whether there is any room left for any non-spotty bits and it just actually a black ladybird! And then, of course, not all ladybirds have spots – some are striped. There are heather ladybirds and pine ladybirds and the rather wonderful sounding Adonis ladybird, and many more…
The most common species of ladybird in Britain is the 7-spot ladybird. This bright red ladybird has seven spots (of course) and is thought to have inspired the name ladybird: ‘Lady’ referring to the Virgin Mary (Our lady) who in early paintings is seen wearing a red cloak; the seven spots are symbolic of the seven joys and seven sorrows of Mary.
They have many regional names, sadly now mostly lost, such as lady-cows, may-bug, golden-knop and golden-bugs. I must remember to casually remark that I have just seen a lady-cow in the garden and see if Richard runs out with a broom to shoo it away – no, perhaps not.
A common myth is that the number of spots on the insect’s back indicates its age, it doesn’t. Throughout the world, superstition states that it is unlucky to kill a ladybird and there are myths surrounding their good fortune… which is odd when you recall the nursery rhyme that many of us learnt as children:
Fly away home,
Your house is on fire
And your children all gone;
All except one
And that’s little Ann,
And she has crept under
The warming pan.’
… which wasn’t very lucky for the poor old ladybird!