Life

Take on Nature: Our immediate environment is teeming with tiny packages of life

According to legend, farmers prayed to Our Lady for help – and got it from ladybirds – when swarms of insects devoured crops
Stephen Colton

DURING the month of August, I've watched a vast array of small invertebrates all around my garden, in hedges and along roadsides. From colourful Peacock butterflies smothering cones of nectar-rich buddleia flowers, to millipedes and beetles at my feet, our immediate environment is teeming with tiny packages of life.

Observing these brought to mind Walter de la Mare's poem The Fly, where we are invited to appreciate the beauty of natural things and reminded that size is really a matter of perspective. He opens with,

How large unto the tiny fly?Must little things appear! –?A rosebud like a feather bed,?Its prickle like a spear

?and goes on to describe how many things small to us must appear huge to the fly, and by implication to other tiny creatures.

I've recently seen the expert hoverer and day-flying humming-bird hawk-moth, with its orange-brown hindwings and black and white chequered body. The rattling grasshopper has been audible from grassy verges and the wriggling centipede lies in wait under stones to inject its venom on passing prey. The hairy ‘woolly bear', caterpillar (garden tiger moth) is also presently running across our roads and laneways.

My favourite encounter was with the long-admired ladybird as it alighted gracefully on my arm. Also known as ladybug/ladybeetle, legends – all difficult to verify – vary on how it got its name, but the most enduring goes back to the Middle Ages in Europe when swarms of insects were destroying crops and after the farmers prayed to Our Lady Mary for help, masses of ladybirds came to devour all the plant-destroying pests and save the crops.

So, they became known as the ‘Beetles of Our Lady' and through time, ladybeetle/ladybird.

In many countries, ladybirds are associated directly with God. In Irish, bóín Dé, and the Polish bo?a krówka, both mean ‘God's cow' or ‘God's little cow', while the Dutch word, lieveheersbeestje, means ‘little animal of our Good Lord'.

Reverence for the ladybird is found as far back as 1744 in the traditional nursery rhyme Ladybird Ladybird, when in medieval England, farmers burnt old hop vines after harvest, to clear fields for the following season. The words, 'Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home… your house is on fire, and your children will burn', were a warning to the ladybirds still eating aphids on the vines to fly off.

King Robert II (972-1031) of France is said to have intervened to spare the life of a man to be beheaded because of a persistent ladybird beetle which kept landing on the man's neck. The executioner repeatedly tried to get it off but the King, known as Pious saw this as a divine intervention, a sign of a just God, reflected in the French term, bête à bon Dieu, meaning ‘a creature of a good God'.

?Of the 18 ladybird species recorded in Ireland, three have not been seen for some time. Their habitats include hedgerows, trees and grasslands, with their colours varying from the yellow and orange to red and black patterned elytra.

A recent, unwelcome addition to the family is the Harlequin ladybird, an arboreal species native to northern and eastern Asia which was imported to North America and has since escaped and naturalised in many European countries including Ireland, first appearing in Lisburn in 2007 and later in counties Cork, Carlow and Wicklow.

As a by-product of its success at controlling pests, this ladybird has, through aggressive competition, decimated native species wherever it has appeared.

Thinking of this new aggressor, I safely transferred my seven-spot ladybird on to a tiny leaf – tiny to me, that is – and wished it well.

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