A ladybird in the hand... The value of our scarlet friends

The ladybird does much more than toxic pesticides you might be thinking of using, writes Peter Dowdall.

THE answers to most of our garden pest problems can be found in the great outdoors without having to resort to opening a bottle of poison. Aphids — greenfly, for example, which feed on roses — and many other garden favourites are regarded as a delicacy by our ladybird friends.

Unfortunately, many of the ‘garden care’ chemicals available are doing far more harm than good, being toxic to not only ladybirds but bees and other beneficial insects. 

Now who doesn’t love ladybirds? The inner child in us comes out when we see one or when one lands on our hand; well it comes out in me anyway. It may seem strange to describe something so small and seemingly insignificant as charismatic but that is indeed what they are — insignificant they ain’t.

Of the family coccinellidae, from the Latin word coccinea, meaning scarlet, their common name originated in Britain as the spots on the seven-spotted ladybird, the most common on these islands, were said to depict her seven joys and seven sorrows of Our Lady.

They are a predator and as such are our friends in the garden as they feed on aphids. There are records dating back to the 1500s of swarms feeding on the pests on crops in the fields. In Ireland, there have been a few random records of this interesting insect but no proper survey has ever been done to determine exactly how many species and in what numbers are resident in Ireland.

Thankfully that is all changing at the moment and with the wonders of the internet and social media, we can all play our part.

Gill Weyman is currently doing a PhD focusing on the distribution of ladybirds in Ireland and is asking all of us to send information on sightings. In particular, she wants us to record where and when we see them. Submit your findings through the website biology.ie.

At this time of the year, we should hopefully be able to help with information on where they may be hibernating.

This is the first baseline study done in Ireland on this insect and in these times of rapid species extinction, it’s not before time. We know of 17 species of ladybird in Ireland but perhaps there are more. Some species are specific to habitats such as conifers and one, the cream streaked ladybird, is specific to wetlands and reeds. It was recorded on the lakes of Killarney in the mid-1900s but nothing since, Gill told me.

When I asked her was she hoping to find some such treasure now or perhaps to have this species recorded again, she smiled, giving little away, but I know something like that would add the icing on the cake to what is a very worthwhile research project.

There is bad news afoot, however — since 2010 there have been sightings of harmonia axyrdis or the harlequin ladybird.

Now firmly established in all parts of Cork, this invasive species will outcompete our native species in terms of diet and reproduction. The harlequin will reproduce three to five times annually whereas the coccinellas will typically only reproduce once a year. The harlequin takes no prisoners, feeding on the eggs, larvae, and pupae of our much-loved friends. They will also feed on aphids and scale insects and will pollinate, but biodiversity is about the abundance of species and thus anything which threatens such diversity in nature is a serious threat.

The harlequin has 22 variations in colouring but they all have a noticeable black marking on their pronutum or headplate. It’s primarily white in colour with a very distinctive black ‘M’.

Remember to keep the smartphone at the ready, snap it, and send it to biology.ie as soon as you see one. As of now there are only three variations of the harlequin recorded in Ireland. Like many invasive species, the harlequin was introduced to Europe and the US deliberately as an aphid control.

During winter, remember that your garden should not be pristine. Make the garden safe, certainly — clean paths and hard surfaces so you don’t suffer a bad fall and remove any dangerous branches, but as regards fallen leaves and logs, long grass and dead wood, these all play their part in nature’s rich tapestry.

Not only are these adding to your soil as they break down and sustain micro-organisms and fungi, but they are also where ladybirds will hibernate.

So, if ever you needed an excuse to put off a job to the spring, now you have it, you’re doing your bit for biodiversity in the garden.

Bare-root roses

When I first started out as a garden designer, nearly all roses were sourced and planted during the winter months as bare root plants. Nowadays, of course, the opposite is the case and nearly all roses are sold as containerised specimens and are thus available for 12 months of the year.

However, you can still get bare-root plants and now is the time to go looking, particularly if you are planting a lot, such as for a hedgerow. Rosa rugosa makes a very attractive hedge, suited to all soils in full sun and will tolerate the harshest of winds and coastal conditions. Many of them will have been grown in MacNamara’s Rose Nursery based in Midleton, Co Cork, so it should tolerate local conditions.

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