Funny the way a chance sighting sets you thinking. What follows this time is a piece that I wrote recently for the Beekeepers' Association of which I am a member.
Many among you may already know the meaning of my title this time. I will clarify in a moment. Since I was given the opportunity to write a piece each month I have followed a broad brief. That brief is to write something broadly or even loosely related to bees (not only honey bees). As well as that I have been producing something which assumes that beekeepers are interested in the natural world upon which their bees depend. So this month I hope to give you some words of interest about the natural world that we experience in and near our gardens and the countryside. In the process I will move towards matters very near to the hearts of beekeepers, which are the introductions / arrivals in the UK of non-native species.
So back to the Bishy-barney-bee, the colloquial Norfolk name for a ladybird. Ladybirds are endearing little creatures especially when you see them through child’s eyes. I seem to remember that as a child a ladybird to me was always the red beetle with black spots. I don’t think I was aware that the number of spots varied with the species – I probably wasn’t observant enough to really notice or concern myself with the number of spots they had – just happy to see them. I guess the species that I would have seen is the Seven-spot ladybird (Coccinella 7-punctata). Even this isn’t as simple as it sounds because the species known as the Seven-spot ladybird can have 0-9 spots.
Ladybirds belong to the Order Coleoptera (beetles) but have their own family Coccinellidae (meaning clad in scarlet – there are exceptions to that rule). My reference document for the British Ladybirds is the FSC (Field Studies Council) Guide to ladybirds of the British Isles. ISBN 978-1-85153-297-1
Over the years I have come to appreciate that there are more species of ladybird present in the British Isles than I might have guessed when a child. According to the FSC Guide there are over 5000 described ladybird species worldwide and 47 Coccinellid species found in the UK. Of these, 26 species are recognisable as ladybirds. The FSC Guide includes those 26 species. The variety is great in terms of size, colour and number of spots but all look like ladybirds.
A couple of weeks ago, while working (and drinking tea) in our garden I came across a small ladybird on a Cheals Weeping Cherry (the ornamental cherry tree). It had yellow spots on black (this species also has a black on yellow variant). I am hoping that you might be thinking that ladybirds are worth a closer look. The species was The Fourteen-spot ladybird, Propylea 14-punctata. Sorry here comes the even more puzzling bit – The yellow with black spots variant can have 4-14 black spots (often fused together) and the black with yellow spots variant can have 8-12 yellow spots. Incidentally the 14 spot lives on conifers – there is a pine growing just behind our Cheals Weeping so that fits. Finding this ladybird caused me to fetch and study my copy of the FSC Guide and again marvel at the variety of species found in UK and the variation of markings within the same species. I can hardly begin to imagine what variations occur among the 5000 species found worldwide.
I would have liked to include pictures from the Guide in this piece but I feel I must respect copyright rules. If you are interesting in seeing and buying a copy then try the FSC website.
At £3 like all the FSC Guides it is great value.
Something else that I find interesting is that many of the UK ladybird species feed on aphids; well the ladybird larvae do to be more precise. Good news for gardeners.
It is a good time now for me to make some connections to our honey bees albeit via the sycamore. Sycamore trees have nectaries on both their male and their female flowers so are a good spring source of nectar for bees. Sycamore is also a rich source of sugars for aphids and the aphids a rich source of food for ladybird larvae. Honey bees and ladybirds benefitting from the sycamore, sharing its bounty or competing for the sycamores resources either way there is a lot going on in the crown of a sycamore.
People do sometimes disparage the sycamore as a non native tree, and because it is so successful at distributing its winged seeds and seedlings popping up all over the garden – I have heard it referred to as a weed tree. I like the sycamore but then I like all maples. As I write this piece I can look out of my study window and see a row of sycamores about 100 yards away. We have masses of their seedlings in our garden every year – I don’t mind. It is reckoned that sycamores arrived in UK about four hundred years ago. Non native but established now.
Keeping on the theme of non native species but returning to ladybirds I expect that you have seen the Harlequin ladybird Harmonia axyridis. The FSC Guide to UK ladybirds says that there are over 100 colour pattern varieties of this species. The Guide has pictures of four of them. Most of the Harlequin’s variations are clearly different from our native species. Having said that the Harlequin ladybird isn’t alone in having a wide range of variants, our native Two-spot and Ten- spot have many variants too.
A thing that distinguishes the Harlequin ladybird is its ability to have more than one generation in a year and thus out-compete some native species that have one generation in a year. The Harlequin arrived in UK in 2003. It was first found in the south west after crossing the channel. It is spreading across the UK. It originated in Asia. Story sound familiar to beekeepers worried about non native bee pests?
The Harlequin is described as the most invasive ladybird on Earth and poses a serious threat to biodiversity. Warnings sound familiar? We have Harlequins over- wintering in the frames of our south facing windows, sometimes in hundreds. Should I kill them? I don’t but maybe I should regard the south facing window frames as rather effective and selective traps – not sure.