An icon of the insect world, ladybirds are instantly recognisable. They are also under threat from one of their own – but you can help!
How many spots has a ladybird got?
Found in gardens on almost every continent, as well as in the pages of most children’s books, ladybirds are celebrated across the globe and in some countries revered. Their image has been adopted by publishers, cosmetic companies, vineyards, hotels and even fashion magazines, making them the celebrities of the insect world and one of the first insects small children recognise.
Yet the ladybird in the books or on a logo, often looks nothing like those we find in our gardens. This is because there are over 5,000 different ladybird species and while most brands use the European seven-spotted ladybird to model their image on, in reality ladybirds come in a wide variety of spot, stripe and colour variations.
Their bright colours also serve a purpose, acting as a defence mechanism to put off potential predators that have eaten their kind before and link the ladybird’s bright colours to their disgusting taste. This bitter taste is due to a yellow fluid ladybirds secrete from their leg joints when they are in danger.
Ladybird’s have earned their reputation as ‘the gardeners’ favourite” for good reason. A single ladybird can consume as many as 5,000 aphids during their lifetime and while there are herbivorous ladybirds, most are nature’s own pest-controllers devouring whole aphid colonies with ease. In some circumstances ladybirds are considered to be more effective than conventional chemical pesticides, with farmers conducting mass ladybird releases to protect their produce.
It was their appetite for aphids that earned the ladybird its’ name, according to the Lost Ladybug Project – “During the Middle Ages in Europe, swarms of aphids were destroying crops. The farmers prayed to the Virgin Mary for help, which then came in the form of ladybirds that devoured the plant-destroying pests and saved the crops. From that moment on the grateful farmers named them, ‘Our Lady’s Beetles’. The name has endured, albeit in a modified version, to the present day.”
Killer in their midst
Not all ladybirds are welcome on South African shores. The Harlequin ladybird from Asia has spread rapidly across the country. Identified by an “M” or “W” on their heads, these predatory ladybirds out-compete our native species and in some cases feast on both indigenous ladybirds and their larvae. Alongside indiscriminate pesticide use, the Harlequin ladybird is argued to be responsible for the decline in many native ladybird populations both in South Africa and across the world.
Help preserve Likweti’s ladybirds
The University of Stellenbosch have produced a poster to help identify Harlequin ladybirds and are asking the public to be their eyes on the ground and we at Likweti want to support this.
If you find a Harlequin ladybird in your garden, or as you explore the Likweti bushveld, please report it to the University’s Invasive Species research group – click here for more information.
They can’t stop the Harlequin without us!
For little ladybird lovers:
• The Lost Ladybug Project is an American initiative with a wealth of ladybird based educational material that your little ones will love – as long as you can get past them being called ladybugs!
• Closer to home, the Ladybird Project, is a great place to learn more about these fascinating insects.
• Julia Donaldson’s books, What the ladybird heard, What the ladybird heard next and What the ladybird heard on holiday are enchanting reads for both little ones and their parents.