Beloved by children and immortalised in stories and cartoons the world over, ladybirds remain a source of fascination for adults, too, but what do we really know about this most beguiling of bugs?
A multi-coloured family
A member of the beetle family, there are as many as 5,000 species of ladybird worldwide, and although there are 46 different species in the UK, only 26 look like a classic ladybird – brightly coloured and patterned. Many are named after the number of spots to be found on them and the 7-spot ladybird, with its black spots and bright red wing case, is the most frequently noted in gardens and parks. However, not all ladybirds have spots and, even if they do, counting those spots is not always a good way to identify them as the number of spots can vary. Their markings, all designed to keep predators at bay, are myriad. Some even have stripes, patches or streaks, but the one thing many have in common is their love of woodland, so the Heart of England Forest is a great place to do some ladybird spotting!
Where to look and what to look for?
Summer and early autumn are great times to spot ladybirds as they love the sunny weather, while in the colder seasons they seek warm secluded places to overwinter, often huddling together in their thousands. Different types of ladybirds prefer different habitats, but all are always on the hunt for food and it is during the summer that food is most abundant. A menu favourite are aphids, and given that during its one year life cycle the average ladybird can guzzle as many as 5,000 of these and other plant-eating pests, it’s a fair bet that wherever they are is where the ladybirds will be too. The 10-spot ladybird (that can have up to 15 spots!) with its colours and patterns varying from cream to yellow, orange, red, purple or even black, prefers deciduous trees or hedgerows, while the pine ladybird, with its black wing case and between two and four red spots, can often be found on willow trees.
One of the more vibrantly marked members of this group of insects is the orange ladybird, with its vivid wing case and 12 to 16 white spots. Previously considered an indicator of ancient woodland, it has become more widespread and can often be found on sycamores or ash trees. Wanderers near the woodland watersides may be lucky enough to spot a water ladybird in early autumn. With its elongated, flattened shape, it has 15-21 black spots on its red wing case and can be seen flitting across reed beds and wetlands looking for food.
An alien invader
Our native ladybirds are facing a ferocious alien invader in the form of the harlequin ladybird. Accidentally introduced to the UK in 2004, harlequin ladybirds are now the fastest spreading alien species in the country and are thought to be responsible for a decline in the popular 2-spot ladybird as they compete with them for food. They have been known to prey on the larvae of native ladybirds. They can be difficult to identify as they have many forms, ranging from orange with up to 21 black spots, to black with just two or four red spots.
If you are out and about and are lucky enough to spot and snap a picture of a ladybird we’d love to see it – email firstname.lastname@example.org with a note about where you saw it and, if you’re having trouble identifying it, we’ll always try and help. For further information about ladybirds and where and when to see them, check out www.ladybird-survey.org.