I never really understood that little ditty when I was a kid. I mean, why would you tell this specifically to a ladybug, as opposed to a bumblebee or a dragonfly?
As it turns out, there is a reason. A quick search on the Web turned up a neat little website on nursery rhymes: http://www.rhymes.org.uk/ladybug_ladybug.htm. It seems that in merry ol’ England it was traditional to burn the fields after the fall harvest to cut down on potential future insect infestations. The farmers knew that this beetle, which they call a ladybird, was the farmer’s friend (they are ravenous aphid-eaters), so this was essentially a courtesy call made to tell the insects to leave the fields before they set them on fire.
Today we find ladybugs mostly in our houses in the winter and spring. This is because these insects seek out good hidey-holes for hibernation (cracks along the outside of the house), and when they detect the warmth and light inside, they move on in. Ladybugs are totally harmless, but they can exude a foul-smelling orange goo from their legs if they are pestered. This is a defense mechanism meant to drive away predators, but to them a broom is just as aggressive as a bluejay, so if you try to sweep them away, they may leave this exudate on your walls and curtains. The majority of the ladybugs that turn up in your house are probably non-natives, the Halloween ladybug being the most common perpetrator. This species is orange and black, and often shows up in the fall.
Despite this apparent evidence to the contrary, many native ladybug species are in rapid decline. Back in 1986, when the nine-spotted ladybug was proposed as New York’s state insect, it was common, but by 1988 its population was in a tailspin. One hasn’t been seen in New York now since the late ‘80s. Only one specimen has been found since then in all of the eastern US, and that was discovered by two children in Virginia.
What can YOU do? Cornell University, home to many a citizen science project, has started the Lost Ladybug Project (www.lostladybug.org). This is a great hands-on project for kids, families, or adults. All you do is go out, look for ladybugs, take their pictures, and send the photos in to Cornell, along with the particulars of where you found the ladybug, when you found it, etc. There are three species they are especially interested in finding: nine-spotted, two-spotted, and transverse ladybugs. If you go to their website, they have lots if photos and color print-outs that can help you succeed in this mission.
I know that I’m going to add ladybug hunting to my list of outdoor activities this summer. I have a patch of tansy that in the past has been loaded with ladybugs, both adults and their larvae (which are strange-looking beasts). Chances are most of these will be introduced species, but you never know…lurking among the immigrants there just might be a native or two.