I think this is what this is. Quite a fine-looking red and black bug with strong markings. Two of them spotted so far this month, attracted to sunny outer walls. I can’t find a common name for them, so will have to make do with the Latin. They feed on plant juices (which?). Don’t seem to be a serious pest.
This is what the smoke bushes look like this autumn, on a dry and sunny west-facing slope. I have one in my garden but it is the nursery-grown ‘Royal Purple’ variety. Very dark violet leaves fringed with the tiniest hem of crimson and green underneath. Handsome but nothing like as magnificent as these wild ones.
“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.
Autumn is here, and with it the longer evenings and cooler air. The shield bugs are looking for somewhere to hibernate. I spent some time last evening switching them off the outside walls of the house with a twig broom. Otherwise they crawl inside, squeezing in through the window frames. Once inside, they do no harm. But they are annoying, insinuating themselves into the bedroom and living room, buzzing clumsily around the lights, crash-landing into your hair, your drink, your soup… If you brush one with your hand, it will open its stink gland and release a malodorous pong. Hence their other name: stink bug. On the Patch we have three types:
1: Western Conifer Seed Bug (Leptoglossus occidentalis). Up until about two years ago this was the only stink bug visitor. Entomologically it isn’t actually a stink bug, but when disturbed it behaves like one. In appearance it’s long and elongated, prone to losing legs (as the example in the photo). Temperamentally it is mild-mannered and unaggressive. It’s very slow-moving. They spend the mild days of summer in the Douglas firs outside the house, feeding up on the seeds. In autumn when the temperatures drop, they crawl indoors. They’re difficult to deter, especially if you live in an old house with less than weatherproof window frames. Native to the USA, they have been in Europe for 20 years or so. Populations seem to fluctuate. In 2015 we had none at all. This year, 2016, we are host to dozens of them.
2: Mottled Shield Bug (Rhaphigaster nebulosa). This is a true shield bug. They also feed mainly off trees (but not conifers) and are native to Europe. The name means ‘Cloudy rod-belly’. If you turn them over, you will see a long sort of spike between the legs. They are a nuisance, coming indoors in quite large numbers and crashing clumsily around the living room when they take flight.
3: Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Halyomorpha halys). This is the dreaded BMSB, an invasive species, native to China and Japan, which has turned into a serious pest in the US, devastating crops of maize, tomatoes and soya beans. Its first confirmed sighting in Hungary (where I found the specimen pictured below) was in the autumn of 2013. The photograph is blurry but the diagnostic features can clearly be seen: the necklace of dots at the base of the head; the stippled legs; the distinct pattern of tooth-shaped white marks along the sides of the wing case (the European stink bug has
white and black markings too, but they are differently shaped, and it lacks the dots across its neck and shoulders).
BMSB is more or less omnivorous. It will eat tomatoes, apples, sunflowers, grapes, pears, peaches, cherries, aubergines, figs… There is a website dedicated to understanding and managing BMSB in the US. Its natural predator, a kind of wasp, has not yet made the journey from Southeast Asia. Does that mean I need to kill all the BMSBs I find? Perhaps not. This article on Entomology Today suggests that katydids eat their eggs. I have plenty of katydids on the Patch.