2-spot ladybird

Brilliant Beetles: Britain’s Ladybirds

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Ladybirds are surely one of the first invertebrates many of us start to recognise as children. Some of our commonest ladybirds are brightly coloured and fairly easy to spot, after all. As well as being attractive and colourful, many UK species are also helpful in the garden. But as with many of our invertebrates, all is not well for our ladybirds. Invasive species, urbanisation and pesticide use mean that it is getting harder for ladybirds to find food, colonise new areas and compete with new arrivals. One way to help is to get out and record your local ladybirds. This helps researchers understand population changes better and see where more help is needed. And with April not only being Citizen Science Month but also when ladybirds will be emerging from their winter slumbers, there is no better time to look for, and record, these brilliant beetles.

Ladybirds for Beginners

Ladybirds, or the Coccinellidae to give them their scientific name, are just one of 103 UK beetle families. Although there are around 5,000 ladybird species globally, we have only 47. Contrary to what you might think, not all are brightly coloured and spotty. In fact, nearly half of the species found in the British Isles could be easily missed as ‘classic’ ladybirds, and some even lack common names. Those that are recognisably ladybirds tend to have round or oval, domed bodies with obviously marked elytra, or wing cases, and short, clubbed antennae. There is a huge variety in size, however, from the tiny 1.5 mm pine scymnus to the relatively huge 7 – 9 mm eyed ladybird, our largest species.

7-spot ladybird
Perhaps our most familiar ladybird: the 7-spot

Many are named for the number of spots they have. This includes our commonest species, the 7-spot ladybird, with its bright red wing cases marked with black spots. This classic red colouring gives the family its common and scientific names. The ‘lady’ part refers to the Virgin Mary who often wore a red cloak in older representations instead of the more familiar blue. The scientific name, meanwhile, comes from the Latin for scarlet. North Americans tend to call their species ladybugs. Perhaps the most endearing name, though, is the Welsh ‘buwch goch gota’. This translates literally as ‘little red cow’, presumably due to their dumpy shape.

Eyed ladybird and 2-spot
The eyed ladybird (here with a dark form 2-spot) is the largest UK species

Variety Is the Spice of Life

Ladybirds are not only varied between species, but some show huge variations within a species. The common 2-spot, for example, is usually red with, you’ve guessed it, a pair of black spots. Confusingly, though, it can appear in a variety of forms including a black one with four or six red spots. This variation is almost certainly an attempt to trick potential predators. Although not exactly toxic, when threatened many ladybirds produce a foul-tasting substance called reflex-blood to put predators, especially birds, off eating them. The 2-spot ladybird, though, isn’t as nasty to eat. Its darker forms may be a way of convincing birds that they are in actual fact one of the species that is more disgusting. One way to help identify the 2-spot, no matter what its form, is leg colour as they are always black.

10-spot ladybird
These pictures show three different forms of the 10-spot ladybird
10-spot ladybird
10-spot ladybird

Other species showing a range of forms include the 10-spot ladybird. Forms range from an orangey background with 10 spots through to black forms with 2 large orange kidney shape markings and many more in between. All have brown legs, however, which distinguishes them from the 2-spot. The non-native harlequin is another extremely variable ladybird. This relatively recent arrival has a dizzying array of patterns, with over 100 different forms recorded. All show a large white patch on either side of the pronotum, however. This is the section immediately behind the head and in front of the wing cases. No one is really sure why these species show such a range of forms. Some may be following the same route as the 2-spot in disguising themselves as less palatable members of the family to put predators off. Darker forms may also help more northerly individuals absorb heat better.

Harlequin ladybirds
These are all harlequin ladybirds, despite their different patterns

The Circle of Life

Many species of UK ladybird have a similar life cycle. All take place over a single year, although some have multiple generations per year. All of our ladybirds overwinter as adults, usually between October and February. This means that they find somewhere sheltered, such as leaf litter, within plant stems, under bark or in sheds, to spend the colder months in a state of dormancy. In urban cemeteries, they often congregate in the sheltered nooks created by gravestone carvings. Large numbers sometimes overwinter together, often as mixed species gatherings. The harlequin ladybird seems to form particularly large groups, often collecting inside houses in the corner of a room. In March and April, adult ladybirds start to emerge. As they disperse from their winter quarters, they spend the next few weeks looking for food and a mate. Many eat either aphids or tiny sap-sucking bugs called scale insects. Some species, such as the 22-spot and the orange ladybird, eat mildew.

22-spot ladybird
22-spot ladybirds eat mildew rather than aphids
Pine ladybirds
Tiny pine ladybirds overwintering on a gravestone

After mating, the female lays batches of tiny, yellow eggs on the underside of leaves. Once this stage of the life cycle is complete, most adults die. The eggs, meanwhile, hatch after a week or so into tiny larvae. Most are dark with bright coloured patches. These larvae might be small, but they have huge appetites. They may even eat any unhatched eggs in the cluster around them. This appetite, though, means they grow quickly but to do so they have to moult their outer skin and go through four instars, or stages. Once they have gone through four moults, they attach themselves to a leaf or twig, forming a special casing called a pupa. Within, they undergo an incredible metamorphosis, with their bodies dissolving before reforming as an adult ladybird. The whole process from egg to newly emerged adult takes approximately eight weeks but is quicker in warmer temperatures. Adults then spend a month or two feeding up before looking for somewhere to spend the winter.

Harlequin ladybird pupa
A harlequin ladybird pupa attached to a leaf

New Arrivals

That voracious appetite for aphids and scale insects, both sap sucking insects who can weaken plants, means that ladybirds are popular with gardeners. The average 7-spot ladybird can eat 5,000 plus aphids over its lifetime, making them extremely useful for keeping numbers in check. As such, gardeners and farmers sometimes use ladybirds as biological control agents. Some gardening suppliers even sell some species online. Where native species are used, this is a much better alternative to chemical pesticides. However, if species from elsewhere are used, the effects can be disastrous. In the 1980s, the aforementioned harlequin ladybird was introduced to North America from Asia to help control aphids on commercial crops. The species spread extremely quickly, outcompeting and predating native species to rapidly become one of the commonest ladybirds there. Producing two generations each year also helped the population grow.

Harlequin ladybird
Harlequin ladybirds native range is eastern Asia

Harlequins were introduced to control aphids in Europe, as well. From here they have reached the UK, either accidentally on imported produce or blown here on strong air currents (ladybirds are actually decent fliers, able to fly high and fast). First recorded here in 2004, they have likewise spread quickly. They are still colonising at a rate of between 80 and 100 km a year. To put this in context, they have covered pretty much the same ground in 20 years as the grey squirrel took 100 years to. As elsewhere, this invasive species outcompetes native ladybirds, as well as eating their eggs and larvae. It also eats those of other insects. It is almost certainly a factor in the declines of some of our native species, including the 2-spot ladybird. Two more non-native species, the bryony ladybird and the tiny Rhyzobius chrysomeloides, were first recorded in the UK in the late 1990s.

Harlequin ladybird larva
Harlequin ladybird larvae are voracious predators of other ladybird eggs and larvae

Loving Ladybirds

Ladybirds are fascinating and beautiful little beetles. More importantly, they are vital components of ecosystems, keeping aphid populations in balance and munching away at mildew. Many of our native species are declining, however. The harlequin ladybird’s arrival has played some part in this but blaming them alone is a lazy and oversimplified approach to the problem. Increased urbanisation, green space loss and pesticide use has almost certainly had an effect, as well. With more people paving over their gardens or installing artificial turf, habitat is disappearing even at this small level.

Cream-spot ladybird
Cream-spot ladybirds live around deciduous trees

Those of us lucky enough to have a garden can help, though. By ditching the pesticides, we leave the aphids for the ladybirds to control instead. And by leaving at least some of our dead plants and leaf litter about in autumn we can provide valuable overwintering sites for our spotted friends. You can also help researchers by recording any of your sightings, helping them get a better picture of ladybird populations. Even more incentive to look out for these varied and charming little insects.

Orange ladybirds
Orange ladybirds (here with a single cream-spot and snail) is another mildew eater

Further Reading

To find out more about identifying and recording ladybirds in the UK, see the UK Ladybird Survey’s website here.

This handy chart features the 27 ladybirds you are most likely to come across in the UK. There is also a wealth of information on their ecology, as well as the threats they face and ways we can help.

For those wanting a more in-depth reference, this comprehensive guide covers all 47 species occurring in the UK. As well as photographs, the book includes detailed artwork by renowned wildlife illustrator Richard Lewington, as does the chart above. There is also detailed information for each species, including range maps as well as each species’ conservation status.

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