For the last, say, seven years, if anyone found a ladybird in the garden, chances were it was the harlequin ladybird.
For the last, say, seven years, if anyone found a ladybird in the garden, chances were it was the harlequin ladybird, Harmonia axyridis. Since it first arrived in the UK in 2004, it has become one of the fastest spreading alien invaders here, and because it is so large, so bright, so numerous and so obvious, it is now the one most people come across in their gardens.
In fact, I can envisage a time in the not-too-distant future when the harlequin will become the default ladybird - the one most people picture in their mind’s eye when thinking about these charismatic and colourful beetles - replacing the old seven-spot of yore. This, I think, will be a sad outcome. In less than 75 years the grey squirrel has almost completely displaced the native red, in England at least. I’m guessing that people under a certain age are more than a little confused to see the images of Beatrice Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin, or Fluffytail of the Tufty Club, thinking that somehow the colour balance in the pictures had gone awry.
What, I wonder, will future generations make of the paltry seven black dots on red, in so many images, when what they see all around them in the living ladybirds are the multiple many-spotted and hardly-spotted black-on-red and red-on-black colour forms of the harlequin?
The fact that the name ‘ladybird’ is specifically taken from the seven-spot, Coccinella septempunctata, will become a piece of arcane knowledge even more obscure than it is today. The ‘lady’ of ladybirds was originally Our Lady, the Virgin Mary, who was often portrayed in early religious imagery wearing a red cloak. The seven spots were taken to represent the seven joys and seven sorrows of Mary. Similar religious sentiments are expressed in other European languages - German 'Marienkafer', meaning 'Mary beetle', and French 'bète à bon Dieu', literally 'animal of good God'. These quaint and charming snippets add another layer of fascination to these animals’ already strange and secret lives.
On Monday I knocked the handsomely marked seven-spot, pictured above, out of the ivy thicket that covers my garden fence. There was a time when I wouldn't have given it a second look, so common and familiar was it once. But now….
Part of the allure of entomology is the combination of that thrill in finding strange things unseen by others, and also a certain smugness in holding a hidden knowledge about these curious and mysterious creatures. It will be a real shame if the seven-spot ladybird goes from familiar entomological icon to a mere footnote of etymological history.