The Legend of the Ladybug
Several years ago, our daughter, Betsy, presented me with a necktie for Father’s Day. Bright yellow, the tie was adorned with a colorful assortment of ladybugs.
“Wear it with a light blue shirt,” Betsy advised. “The ladybugs are cute!”
Even beyond the world of men’s apparel, the bright red beetles with black spots make a fashion statement. Ladybugs stand out in the coleoptera family whose members are usually black and brown.
The proper name for these fascinating insects is the ladybird beetle. Over time the name was shortened to lady beetles. In the United States they became known as ladybugs. The colorful beetle has been named the state insect of South Carolina.
Myths about the ladybird beetle abound. One myth is that if you spot one in your home, it means prosperity and good fortune. Another is that the number of ladybugs in your home indicates how many of unexpected guests you are soon to host. Mercy!
During the Middle Ages, hordes of voracious insects descended upon the fields and orchards of central Europe. Fearful that all their food crops would be destroyed, people prayed to the Virgin Mary for help.
According to legend, red and black beetles appeared, making a feast of the invading insects, thus saving the crops. People called their winged rescuers the beetles of Our Lady. Their red wings were said to represent the Virgin’s cloak. The black spots were symbolic of her joys and her sorrows.
Lady beetles are among the most helpful garden predators. The brightly colored insects picnic on aphids and mealy bugs. One tiny ladybug can polish off a hundred aphids in a day!
More than 4000 species are found worldwide. In the United States the hard shell is usually red with black spots. During flight, the shell opens, allowing the wings to beat up to eighty-five times a second.
Ladybugs hibernate during the autumn and winter in logs or piles of leaves. Sometimes they find shelter beneath the siding of a home. As the spring sun warms them, they may emerge inside the dwelling, causing considerable consternation among residents. Our friends in the pest control business report that the problem is annoying but not serious. Ladybugs are attracted to light-colored houses, especially those having a clear southwestern sun exposure. Older homes tend to experience more problems because they lack adequate insulation.
The ladybugs enter through small cracks around windows, doors, and siding, searching for a warm, comfortable spot during cold weather. They congregate in groups during hibernation; so if you see one, you will probably find more. If you can locate their entry point, caulking the small cracks will keep them at bay.
Ladybugs do not eat fabric, plants, or paper. While in the house they live off of their own body fats. They prefer a little humidity. Because homes generally have low humidity during the winter, most of your ladybug guests will eventually die from dehydration. Occasionally, you might find one in your bathroom getting a drink of water. Smart lady!
The best way to eliminate the unwelcome guests is with a vacuum cleaner. Use a clean bag and release them outside. The nursery rhyme “Ladybug, ladybug fly away home” was supposed to charm the insects into departing.
Many folks in various cultures consider the presence of a ladybug as a herald of good luck. Killing one is said to bring sadness and misfortune.
The French believe that if a ladybug lands on you, any ailment you have will fly away with the insect.
In Belgium it is said that when a ladybug lands on a young woman’s hand, she’ll be married within a year. The black spots on the back of the insect indicate the number of children the couple will have.
When Swiss children ask where babies come from, parents tell them that ladybugs deliver newborn infants.
In Norway romance will surely blossom for a man and a woman who spy a ladybug at the same time.
People living in Victorian England believed that a ladybug alighting on your hand predicted that you would receive a new pair of gloves. If one landed on your head, a new hat would soon come your way.
In some cultures ladybugs were thought to have divine powers. According to a Norse legend, Thor sent the ladybug, riding on a bolt of lightning, as a gift to earth. Some Asian cultures believe that ladybugs understand human language and act as interpreters for the gods.
Many legends in this country harken back to pioneer days. Finding a ladybug in a family’s log cabin during the winter was considered a good omen. Ladybugs even played a part in pioneer medicine. In the 1800s, some doctors treated measles with the foul-smelling fluid that ladybugs secrete to make themselves distasteful to birds! Physicians also believed that placing a mashed ladybug onto an abscessed tooth would stop throbbing pain.
Farmers say that seeing a large number of flying ladybugs during the spring months is a harbinger of bountiful crops. Folklore suggests that the number of spots on a ladybug found in your home reveals how many dollars you will soon find. Making a wish, while holding a ladybug in your hand, brings good luck. Watching the direction it flies off your hand indicates the source of this luck.
Legends notwithstanding, the ladybird beetle is beneficial to home gardeners and commercial farmers.
In the 1880s a destructive scale insect was killing large groves of lemon and orange trees. The California Citrus Growers released thousands of ladybugs into the orchards. Within two years the infestation ended, and the trees began to bear fruit again. Ladybugs saved the entire citrus industry. Since then, ladybugs have been employed around the world to help control outbreaks of pests.
On one of the first warm days of spring, I was walking in my garden, examining various plants that were off to a fresh start. I paid particular attention to the climbers – scarlet honeysuckle, several varieties of clematis, and the rambling roses. Ordinarily, I will find a few aphids on some of the tender shoots of these vines. One clematis vine in particular was heavily infested with these tiny sucking invaders.
Later that day I purchased a bottle of insecticidal soap. When I returned to the affected clematis, I discovered the plant was covered in ladybugs, feasting on the aphids. I put the spray bottle away, allowing them to dine to their hearts’ content.
Master Gardener Joe Maple taught me that if you kill a beneficial insect, you inherit its job. When it comes to ladybugs, my motto is borrowed from highway construction crews.
“Let them live. Let them work.”
Kirk H. Neely © May 2014