I’ve always disliked that children’s rhyme about ladybirds but I do like ladybirds themselves and always have done since a child. I loved it when my parents bought me clothing from the Ladybird range which, I confess, I had no idea was still going strong! And I really enjoyed this little hint of humour on a sculpture I saw recently at Wisley as part of the annual Surrey Sculpture Society trail (Rose with little bird by Alison Catchlove).
This summer has been a bumper year for ladybirds in our garden which has been a delight to see and a real asset given that it also seems to have been a bumper year for blackfly, greenfly and every other colour of fly, aphid etc! When it comes to these other tiny, but at times destructive insects, the ladybird is undoubtedly the ally of the gardener.
Did you know that there are over forty species of ladybird in the UK? Unfortunately it is a non-native species, the Harlequin ladybird, that is now one of the most common in our gardens. Just to trick us, this ladybird comes in two very contrasting common forms. The most obvious is the orange one which has 18 black spots but, I discovered recently, that it also comes in black with just 2 red spots! So when I took a photograph earlier this spring of a black 2-spotted ladybird mating with an red multi-spotted ladybird, this was actually a mating of the same species!
The problem with the Harlequin is that they don’t just eat aphids and scale insects, they are also cannibalistic! As a result, they are being accused of causing a decline in our UK native species as, being larger, they are out-competing them and even eating them – ugh! I confess that this rather changed by view of these innocent looking creatures. The UK Ladybird Survey is monitoring the impact of the Harlequin alongside the overall health of other species populations around the country. Reading this made me relieved to see that we also had some native 7-spot ladybirds in the garden, this one enjoying our echinacea.
The behaviour of the Harlequin seems a long way from the innocence suggested by the origins of the ladybird name. The UK’s most common ladybird species is the seven-spot and it 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.
This spring, the ladybirds began to flourish in our garden around the middle of April when they seemed to be particularly attracted to our mirabelle tree. On a mild, sunny afternoon they seemed to be present on most branches. One thing that never ceases to astonish me about ladybirds is that their larvae bear no resemblance to their final adult form. Ladybird larvae tend to be bigger than an adult ladybird, being long, thin and coloured black and yellow. I tend to think they look quite evil and, if you didn’t know better, you’d be removing them quickly from your prize plants! However, this couldn’t be further from the truth as they are also exceptionally hungry creatures and can devour up to 5,000 aphids when they hatch. During July and August these larvae will morph into adult ladybirds and by the autumn they are getting ready to go into a dormant state and hibernate.
So what do you need to do if you want to encourage more ladybirds into your garden? One of the key things to remember is that ladybirds are a beneficial insect, so don’t go spraying them with chemicals! In fact, if you want ladybirds to thrive in your garden, avoid chemicals altogether. We haven’t used chemical sprays or non-organic feeds in our garden for nearly 20 years now and we suspect that it is one of the reasons why we see such a diverse range of wildlife.
When it comes to planting for ladybirds, apparently they love things such as angelica, calendula, caraway, chives, cosmos, dill, fennel, feverfew, marigold, statice, sweet alyssum and yarrow. Interestingly, we don’t grow many of these but we do have an extensive bank of bronze fennel and this year, for the first time, I’ve been successful in growing dill. I have also grown cosmos but, as at the time of writing, only one deep pink flower has emerged. I don’t know whether the ladybirds prefer the flowers or the foliage? A day or so after taking the photo below, I did see a ladybird on this plant. Sadly another Harlequin, which kept moving around, falling off the fronds and making it impossible to photograph!