Ladybirds, also known as ladybugs or lady beetles are a family, Coccinellidae (“little sphere”), of beetles. The name is thought to allude to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Catholic faith. Ladybirds are found worldwide, with over 4,500 species described – more than 450 native to North America alone. Ladybirds are small insects, ranging from 1 mm to 10 mm (0.04 to 0.4 inches), and are usually yellow, orange, or red with small black spots on their carapace, and black legs, head and feelers. As the family name suggests, they are usually quite round in shape. Because they are useful, colorful, and harmless to humans, ladybirds are typically considered cute even by people who hate most insects.
Ladybirds are brightly colored in order to ward away potential predators. This defense works because most predators associate bright colors (especially orange and black or yellow and black) with poison and other unpleasant properties. This phenomenon is called aposematism. In fact, most ladybugs are indeed toxic to smaller predators, such as lizards and small birds; however, a human would have to eat several hundred ladybugs before feeling any effects. Adult ladybirds are able to reflex-bleed from their leg joints, releasing their oily yellow toxin with a strong repellent smell. This becomes quite obvious when one handles a ladybird roughly.
Ladybirds lay eggs which hatch into a larval state. The larvae then go into a pupal stage before becoming an adult ladybird.
Ladybirds lay extra infertile eggs with the fertile eggs. These appear to provide a backup food source for the larvae when they hatch. The ratio of infertile to fertile eggs increases as with scarcity of food at the time of egg laying. (Perry & Roitberg, 2005)
Ladybirds are beneficial to organic gardeners because most species are insectivores, consuming aphids, fruit flies, thrips, and other tiny plant-sucking insects that damage crops. In fact, their name is derived from “Beetle of Our Lady”, recognizing their role in saving crops from destruction. Today they are commercially available from a variety of suppliers.
In agriculture, ladybirds, like other beetles, can find protection in beetle banks.
Ladybirds are and have for very many years been favorite insects of children, who are reputed to regard them tenderly. The insects had many regional names (now mostly disused) such as the lady-cow, May-bug, golden-knop, golden-bugs (Suffolk); and variations on Bishop-Barnaby (Barney, Burney) Barnabee, Burnabee, and the Bishop-that-burneth.
The ladybird is immortalized in the children’s nursery rhyme extant:
Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home
Your house is on fire and your children are gone
All except one, and that’s Little Anne
For she has crept under the warming pan.
and ancient (recounted in an 1851 publication):
Dowdy-cow, dowdy-cow, ride away heame,
Thy house is burnt, and thy bairns are tean,
And if thou means to save thy bairns
Take thy wings and flee away!
The name which the insect bears in the various languages of Europe is clearly mythic. In this, as in other cases, the Blessed Virgin Mary has supplanted Freya, the fertility goddess of Norse mythology; so that Freyjuhaena and Frouehenge have been changed into Marienvoglein, which corresponds with Our Lady’s Bird. There, can, therefore, be little doubt that the esteem with which the lady-bird, or Our Lady’s cow, is still regarded, is a relic of ancient beliefs. In many places is North-Europe, tradition says you get a wish granted if a ladybug lands on you. In Italy it is said by some, that if a Ladybird or Ladybug flies into your bedroom, that it is considered good luck.
The ladybird is the symbol of the Dutch Foundation Against Senseless Violence. Other companies using ladybirds as their corporate logo include Ladybird Books (owned by Pearson PLC and the Ladybird range of children’s clothing sold by Woolworth’s in the UK.
Note that not all individuals show the number of spots suggested by their names:
- Seven-spotted lady beetle, Coccinella septempunctata
- Two-spotted lady beetle, Adalia bipunctata
- Convergent lady beetle, Hippodamia convergens
- Thirteen-spotted lady beetle, Hippodamia tredecimpunctata
- Spotted lady beetle, Coleomegilla maculata
- Twice-stabbed lady beetle, Chilocurus stigma
- Mexican bean beetle, Epilachna varivestis Mulsant
- Asian lady beetle, Harmonia axyridis
- Mealybug Ladybird, Cryptolaemus montrouzieri