Is the Harlequin conquering Europe?

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Ladybird Ladybird … Is the Imported Harlequin our Friend or our Foe?

The ladybird (coccinelle in French) is probably one of the best recognised and most popular insects in Europe — and the subject of a popular nursery rhyme associated with some sinister history.

Ladybird Ladybird ... (Credit Mike Alexander)

The very sight of a ladybird conjures up the soft oohing sound normally induced by babies and cute furry mammals and epitomised perhaps in an English nursery rhyme known to thousands of children (see below).

But behind the ladybird as symbol of bounteous nature, reportedly lies a tale of religious persecution: “An inordinate amount of nursery rhymes are actually about religious persecution in 16th-17th century Britain. ‘Ladybird, Fly Away Home’ is no exception.
“It dates from the 16th century, when Henry VIII had broken away from the church in Rome. Practically overnight, the citizens of his realm were expected to reject their life-long Catholicism and become loyal members of the Church of England. The penalties became quite horrific, especially as the decades passed and his children took up the mantle…”

Persecution apart, there are 5,000 different types of lady birds around the world with nearly 100 found in Europe. They are all members of the beetle family. Beetles differ from bugs in that they have non sucking mouth parts and foldable wings that they keep protected beneath a hard shell, one which is daintily decorated in the case of most of the lady bird family.

What adds to their popularity among gardeners and farmers is that both the nymphs and the adults eat aphids who they pretty much universally regard as the bad guys of the insect kingdom.

Top this off with nursery rhymes like Lady Bird Lady Bird, a few million variations on the theme of lady bird toys, lady bird jewelry, lady bird hairclips and clothing and pretty soon you have created a creature with a popularity level approaching that of Johnny Halladay!

This despite the fact that lady birds don’t do singing. Tangentially as it were and on the subject of singers, there was a French transsexual singer in ’50’s , Jacqueline Charlotte Dufresnoy, who went by the name of Coccinelle and was a great sensation in France.

Not happy with just our 100 species of the insect someone decided to introduce a newer, bigger, better ladybird from Asia. The new arrival — the harlequin ladybird or Harmonia axyridis — is bigger and a more ferocious consumer of aphids. Thus it was hoped the harlequin would vastly reduce the numbers of these sap sucking pests and enable us to produce more crops.

However the harlequin has now gone on to become the fastest spreading insect in Europe and one of the most invasive insects in the world. It can be found in South Africa and South America, across Europe, throughout the U.S. and well into Canada.

While it is true that they consume vast numbers of aphids as well as some forms of scale insect, their voracious appetites do not stop there. They have begun to cannibalise their European cousins and are carriers of diseases to which the cousins are susceptible but to which they are immune.

The name ladybird is thought to have first appeared in England where “Our Lady’s Bird” was a term for the Virgin Mary who was often portrayed in a scarlet cape with seven white spots symbolizing the seven sorrows and seven joys.

A similar history surrounds the German name “Marienkafer” or Marybeetle.

The most common ladybird in Europe is the little seven spot ladybird although as mentioned, they have been in decline since the introduction of the harlequin.

Not all ladybirds are as brightly coloured and recent studies by the Universities of Exeter and Cambridge in the U.K. have shown that the bright colouring acts as a warning to predators, such as birds, that these creatures are toxic, the brighter the colour the higher the level of toxicity.  Duller ladybirds with fewer toxins tend to spend more of their time hiding beneath leaves and trying to remain out of bird sight.

Ladybird Ladybird words to the children's nursery rhyme

The harlequin is so named because it comes in an array of different colours making it difficult to identify. They may have no spots or as many as twenty two. Throughout Europe, from Portugal to Russia, there is a range of folklore associating sightings of the ladybird with good fortune.  However if the harlequin continues to endanger native ladybirds at the current rate we may need to consider reassessing their relationship with good luck.

Writer: Mike Alexander
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