What insect has such a colorful and fascinating history as the ladybird, also known as the ladybug? In an age of faith, when people saw earth mirroring heaven, this tiny creature was thought to enjoy the special protection of the Virgin Mary. Reversing its role in the last century, this small symbol of Our Lady burst into prominence as a protector of people and their food supply. As the enemy of aphids, the ladybird has rendered service calculated in the billions of dollars in the past century alone.
We have good reason to be grateful for this little beetle and to the Lady for whom it is named.
Agricultural specialists first became interested in the ladybug when California orange groves were mercilessly attacked by a voracious insect pest in the late nineteenth century. In 1880, agricultural experts discovered that a parasitic insect was infesting orange trees in California's Santa Clara Valley. The infestation was known locally as "San Jose scale." Eventually it was traced to the flowering peach trees imported from China. These trees were infected with tiny sap-sucking insects until then unknown in the western world.
The deadly visitor insect from Asia found the orange trees a delicious victim and spread quickly. They multiplied so rapidly that they became a mortal threat to the citrus industry in all of California, and even on the Atlantic seaboard. By 1898, the havoc wreaked by these aphids was so grave that the German emperor forbade the importation of American fruits and living plants.
The Department of Agriculture tried a variety of pesticides, with little success. Mr. C.V. Riley, chief entomologist of the Department of Agriculture, suggested that aphids could be controlled by introducing other insects which would prey on them. In the 1890s, such a proposal seemed radical and preposterous, and drew scoffs even from close associates.
Working against indifference and opposition, Riley was determined to find a creature to attack the aph-ids. He learned that aphids caused little harm in Australia, and concluded that some natural enemy was keeping them under control.
Mr. Albert Koebele discovered that a variety of the harmless ladybird beetle was the antidote. Gathering ladybirds from Australian plants by hand, Koebele shipped 140 of these plant-saving beedes to Los Angeles. When set free in an infested orange grove on trees covered with gauze screens, the ladybird liberators cleared these trees of scale within a few days.
More ladybirds were imported, and California scientists began to raise them in wholesale quantities. In California groves they brought cottony-cushion scale under control within two years.
Following this success, this variety of beetle was introduced to more than thirty countries. Without exception, they reduced or eliminated the damage of scale insects on citrus trees.
So dramatic and conclusive was the ladybird experiment that it marked a turning point in scientific agriculture. Since then, hundreds of attempts have been made to find insects to control insect pests and noxious plants. Economic entomology is an outgrowth of the ladybird experiment to salvage California's orange-growing business.
The ladybird rose to the rescue as the protector of the human food supply. Although this was a new role for the colorful beetle, the bright insect has been well known for centuries.
How did it become known as "Our Lady's Bird?" No one seems to know exactly. In Elizabethan times many common creatures were attributed names with a sacred association. Such names were usually local in character. In the case of the ladybird, another factor came into play. Not only was it a colloquial name employed in a few areas of England, but it found its way into many languages in forms closely related.
In German, the tiny critter was called marienhuhn (Mary's chicken), marien-kafer (Mary's beetle) and marienwurmschen (Mary's little worm). Marienkuh was an earlier form related to the English "Lady-cow." The Swedes used the name marias nyckelpiga, and the farmers still call the insect "the Virgin Marys golden hen." A slightly different tack is taken in French and Spanish.
In these languages the names link the insect with the protection of God. The French call it la bete a bon Dieu (God s animal), while the Spanish use the name vaquilla de Dios (Gods little cow).Both coincidence and cultural exchange fall short in explaining so widespread a view concerning an insect. Scientific names in Latin are common to many nations and languages. But it is extraordinary for folk names to be so closely parallel. Why should peoples in so many different lands envision the ladybird as enjoying heavenly protection, especially that of Mary?
Probably because persons who have grown up in rural areas know that birds and animals almost always leave the ladybird strictly alone, for the ladybird is proficient in chemical warfare. It produces a yellowish fluid which it discharges in time of danger. Though seldom noticed by the blunted human sense of smell, this serum is highly repulsive to foes of the ladybird. Consequently, the bright bug goes about its business with virtual immunity from attack.
Amazed at the beetle's sheltered and protected life, human observers probably concluded that it enjoyed the special favor of the Lady whom they themselves venerated and whose assistance they sought. It seemed natural to call the insect "Ladybird." People may have seen a similarity in the creature's charmed life to the preservation of Our Lady from sin. In the England of that time, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was a popular belief. English dialects included variant titles like Lady-beetle, Lady-clock, Lady-cow. Standardization of speech erased these names, and gradually the capitalization of the first letter was discontinued. Now only the scholarly reader continues to find in this insect's name a reference to earlier reverence and Marian relation.
Farmers of Elizabethan England may not have understood clearly the economic significance of the ladybird, but they knew that it fed on other insects. Hops, long a major crop, are vulnerable to the attack of plant lice. Ladybirds abounded in hop fields. But not until 1861 did scientific records mention that ladybirds feed on aphids that infest hops.
Folk literature preserves some clues. Even today, children of many lands know some form of this rhyme:
Ladybird, Ladybird, fly away home! Your house is on fire, Your children do roam. Except little Ann, who sits in a pan Weaving gold laces as fast as she can.
Children recite this rhyme after a ladybird has been placed on an outstretched finger. This practice has changed little through centuries as indicated by a woodcut dating from the reign of King George II, depicting a child addressing a ladybird before flight.
Having more rhyme than reason, the jingle's significance is clearer in view of its historical setting. Farmers often gathered hop plants and burned them when the harvest was finished. Ladybirds swarmed and children enjoyed warning the little birds to flee from danger. "Little Ann" was the farmers name for a young grub of the ladybird attached to a leaf and shedding its skin, or "weaving gold laces."
Experts believe that the ladybird will never become obsolete and outlive its usefulness in agricultural endeavor. The life-saver beetle is more efficient for many operations than any pesticide yet devised. Those reared under natural conditions are more abundant and potent than those produced by in-sectaries. In the U.S. alone, at least 350 varieties have been identified. The protective work of the ladybird is responsible for a huge saving annually for the country's farm economy. Without it, growers would be at a loss to produce substantial crops of needed fruits.
With no inkling of its significance in their own era or its future role in world agriculture, medieval farmers reverently named the little beetle, "Our Lady's Bird." How appropriate that the creature so named became a protector of our food supply and the symbol of a branch of applied science.
Eyes of faith allow us to see that Our Lady's Bird is, in fact, a messenger from a provident God.