Countryside Notes – September

There are 42 different species of ladybirds in the UK coming in a variety of colours which even within individual species can vary greatly. Nearly all are carnivorous and of great benefit to gardeners and farmers as they and their larvae feed on harmful insects such as aphids, small caterpillars and scale insects. The most common is red with seven black spots. The striped ladybird is a chestnut colour with cream stripes or spots, kidney-spot ladybirds are black with two large red spots, cream-spot ladybirds are maroon-brown with 14 cream spots. There are also yellow ones with varying numbers of black spots – and the list goes on! Harlequin ladybirds are unwelcome new arrivals to Britain and being cannibalistic pose a threat to our native species. Introduced originally to mainland Europe from eastern Asia to control aphids and scale insects it was only going to be a matter of time before they made it across the English Channel. Harlequins vary greatly both in the colouring of their wing cases and the number of spots which can range from none to 21. Because there is such a great variation it is very difficult to tell them apart from our native ladybirds but close inspection reveals they are generally larger and their legs are almost always brown in colour. Adult ladybirds hibernate outdoors in winter seeking shelter in conifer bushes, crevices in trees, etc but they also find their way indoors by hiding away in window frames and conservatories. In spring the first warm, sunny day stirs them into activity. When ladybirds emerge from hibernation they first feed and then mate. The females lay tiny, bright yellow eggs in a cluster on the underside of a leaf which after about a week hatch into small, black, six-legged larvae. These feed greedily on aphids and grow so quickly they shed their skin three times before becoming full grown. After 3-4 weeks each larva attaches itself to a leaf and forms a pupa from which the adult emerges a week or so later in mid to late summer. Occasionally ladybirds make headline news when great swarms appear. After feeding for a few weeks they seek out places to hibernate. Most survive less than a year but it’s estimated in that time they will have consumed 5,000 aphids. Their bright colours issue a warning to birds not to eat them – the joints in their bodies give off a foul tasting fluid. There are two theories as to why these little flying beetles got called ladybirds. Our most common ladybird, the bright red seven-spot, is thought to have inspired the name. ‘Lady’ referring to the Virgin Mary (Our Lady) who in early paintings is depicted wearing a red cloak, the seven spots being symbolic of the seven joys and seven sorrows of Mary. Alternatively in the Middle Ages people recognised how beneficial they were in destroying agricultural pests and they became regarded as a gift from the Our Lady hence the name ladybird.

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