Spotting a lady in the garden

The UK has 46 species of ladybird, the most common being red with seven black spots, which is the one that had colonised our garden. Picture: Carolyn Givenchy Large

There was a very warm reaction to my column of three weeks ago in which I talked about the bumble bee that landed next to me in the garden when I was little, and how my dad explained that there was no need to be afraid of it. It’s funny isn’t it, how such small and seemingly insignificant moments become the memories we most treasure.

Whenever I write a column, I post about it on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter and the responses to that piece have been particularly heartwarming to read. Today, I’m writing this on the third anniversary of Dad’s death (April 21st), and as anyone who has lost a loved one knows, even though we think of them every single day, it’s on the anniversaries that their loss is even more acute.

So I was delighted this afternoon when I read my dad’s column from 8th May 1976 to find that he mentions his family: ‘My recent exertions in the garden, aided by my wife and four children, revealed more than the usual number of ladybirds. They seemed to be everywhere and became a source of great delight, even to those who would normally be very wary of beetles!’

He went on: ‘I made sure the children appreciated their value to the garden, explaining their insatiable appetite for small insect pests like greenflies and mealy bugs.’

I do recall that day in the garden, and the wonder that my nine-year-old self felt at finding so many of those pretty little red and black creatures, their bright spotty wing cases distancing them from their scarier beetle relatives. There is an old belief that large quantities of ladybirds indicate an event of great importance in the forthcoming year. Well, they weren’t wrong, were they, for 1976 became known as ‘The Year of the Drought’.

Although there were many ladybirds around in May, it wasn’t until later in the year that the real ‘plagues’ arrived. The period from May 1975 until August 1976 was the driest since 1717 when records began, and that had followed a five-year spell of the driest weather since the 1850s. By the end of the 1975-76 winter, most reservoirs in England and Wales were barely half full.

There was very little rainfall in the first months of 1976, and the whole of Western Europe experienced five months of severe drought from May onwards. In June, temperatures soared, and by July, the UK had to introduce hosepipe bans, with the slogan ‘Save water, bath with a friend’ becoming popular. We were encouraged to reuse our bath water for drenching our parched gardens or washing our dust-covered cars. In south-east Wales, the situation was so bad that the mains supply was turned off for up to 17 hours a day, and people had to carry water in buckets from standpipes in the street. By late August, Leeds was down to a mere 80 days’ supply.

It was this prolonged dry spell that led to an infestation of aphids, mostly greenfly, causing one observer to liken it to a curtain of green wafting down the street. The aphid invasion peaked in August, and was closely followed by a plague of ladybirds. Pictures of ladybird-covered cars, phone boxes and buildings filled our newspapers and the pavement crunched under our feet as we walked. The drought eventually ended in September when the weather returned more or less to normal.

We have 46 species of ladybird in the UK, the most common being red with seven black spots, which is the one that had colonised our garden. But there are also those with red spots on black, black spots on yellow, yellow spots on black and white spots on orange. As well as seven spots, there are some with two, some with 14 or even some with 22!

However, in 2004, the most invasive ladybird in the world landed on our shores. The harlequin is native to Asia, but has become firmly established and is being blamed for a decline in our own species due to its reputation for devouring them. It is quite difficult to tell between the two species, but the main difference is that the harlequin has orangey legs, as opposed our own lady’s black ones.

So why not head into your garden to see if you can spot a lady or a harlequin.

Read more at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 8th May and the Gazette & Herald on 6th May 2020

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