“Give them another two days of southern sun,” begs the poet Rilke. When autumn puts paid to summer and winter’s cold is perceptible in the air, let there be just a couple more days of warmth to bring the last fruits to ripeness and concentrate the sugars in the vines.
Today was one of those days—and with the warmth came the annual ladybird swarm. Any plans we might have had to eat a last lunch outside had to be abandoned. One step past the back door and ladybirds were everywhere, landing in your hair, face, ears, hands and getting into your clothing.
Here on the Patch, the ladybirds swarm every year at about this time, looking for a cosy crevice to spend the winter. And they communicate with each other. When one ladybird finds a good roost, it releases a pheromone to attract others, because they like to hibernate in large groups. And once a good spot is found, they tend to return to it year after year. Traces of the pheromone remain, I read somewhere, and unless you scrub it off, the ladybirds will be back. I’m not sure how reliable this advice is. We did a proper window clean at the end of the summer and it hasn’t made a shred of difference.
What to do? The ladybirds themselves aren’t really bothersome unless you accidentally get in their way: ladybirds are one of the species of insects that reflex bleed or autohaemorrhage. If disturbed or made to feel threatened, they instinctively release a droplet of haemolymph, a yellow-brown fluid designed to deter predators. Human beings won’t be particularly deterred by such a puny weapon, but it does have a mildly unpleasant smell and it stains.
From earliest childhood, though, we are trained to love ladybirds. Christina Rossetti’s words are carved early on into many young hearts:
Hurt no living thing:
Ladybird, nor butterfly,
Nor moth with dusty wing,
Nor cricket chirping cheerily,
Nor grasshopper so light of leap,
Nor dancing gnat, nor beetle fat,
Nor harmless worms that creep.
The ladybirds that descend in droves on warm, south-facing walls in autumn are neither the much-loved seven-spot nor the elven-spots but almost all Asian lady beetles or Harlequin ladybirds, Harmonia axyridis, an invasive, non-native species. They are very useful aphid-controllers, but they have aggressive habits (dive-bombing homeowners in their search for winter quarters, and biting when moisture is scarce) and they are competing successfully with native species.
Harlequin ladybirds look subtly different from native species. They come in many permutations but the main ones are well illustrated on this Belgian website. The ones with red or brown wing cases have an easily identifiable black marking resembling a capital W on their collar. They are voracious eaters and not only do they compete ruthlessly with native species for living space and food; they will also eat the larvae of native species if food is scarce. They are poised to become a majority minority in our gardens, if they have not done so already.
As a result, our attitudes to them are ambivalent. This is the migrant crisis of the coleoptera world and the issues are just as complicated. Harlequin ladybirds didn’t arrive illegally. They were invited, introduced first to the US and then into mainland Europe as gastarbeiters because of their pest-control skills. They made their way to the UK, seemingly of their own accord, in the early 2000s. Now that they’re doing well and digging in, can we hold it against them? I don’t want them to settle in my living room, but this is mainly because if they do, I know they won’t survive. The central heating makes the house too warm and dry, meaning they will either die of dehydration or wake too soon, before there are any aphids to eat. The best thing to do is coax them out again and find a suitable place for them, sheltered, where it won’t get too cold. It’s some time since I saw a seven-spot ladybird. I can’t remember the last time I saw a two-spot or an eleven-spot. I’m stuck with the Harlequins. That’s what happens when mankind tries to play God.