Published 6:05 pm Thursday, December 9, 2021
A couple weeks ago, I stepped out of my house on a warm, Indian summer day. A ladybug landed on my glasses. I waved a quick flip of my hand, but she refused to move. I had to take my glasses off and nudge her with a bit more determination before she agreed to fly away.
The episode brought to my mind a verse memorized in childhood:
Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home.
Your house is on fire and your children will burn.
The sentiment seemed quite macabre, especially for such happy-looking creatures, so I decided to investigate its origin and meaning. According to Wikipedia, the original English version of the poem was included in “Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song- Book,” published in 1744. The common name for the insect in England is ladybird, and the poem went like this:
Ladybird, ladybird fly away home,
Your house is on fire and your children are gone,
All except one, and her name is Ann,
And she hid under the baking pan.
Apparently, the intent was not an expression of ill-will, but a warning and a wish to save the insects. One account asserts that farmers who needed to burn the stubble in their fields would recite the verse to encourage ladybugs to fly to safety, joining their children who had already crawled away.
Other ladybug lore notes that many cultures link the insects with good luck. The Turkish name apparently translates to “good luck bug,” and in several places, they are linked to the making and granting of wishes. Having a ladybug land on an article of clothing is supposed to foretell the arrival of new apparel. Perhaps coincidentally, I had an eye exam shortly after my ladybug encounter, and my new glasses should be ready any day now.
The “lady” part of the name is associated with the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, addressed as “Our Lady” in some communities. Several accounts suggest it is because the red color symbolizes Mary, and the spots represent her sorrows. Other stories say medieval farmers prayed against aphids, scale insects and other agricultural pests. In response, Mary sent the ladybugs to avert disaster.
According to the College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment at the University of Kentucky, a single ladybug can eat up to 5,000 aphids during its lifetime. Ladybugs are not true bugs, however. From a scientific viewpoint, ladybugs are beetles. As a result, entomologists prefer to call them ladybird beetles or lady beetles.
Whatever you call them, there are many types featuring differing numbers of spots and spanning a range of colors, including red, orange, pink and yellow. With the exception of a couple yellow family members that eat plants instead of pests, ladybugs are beneficial in gardens, fields and wooded areas.
An Asian variety, also called the harlequin ladybug or the Asian lady beetle, was originally imported in an effort to control pests affecting apples and pecans. Their population may have grown larger when additional beetles hitched rides on transoceanic cargo shipments. This type can be differentiated from other varieties by an M- or W-shaped spot directly behind the head. Although they still eat agricultural pests, the Asian lady beetle has become an invasive nuisance, overwhelming native species.
Asian lady beetles are also the ones most likely to try to come inside when fall days turn cooler. They do not reproduce indoors like other household pests. They do not eat wood or food. They do not chew holes in clothing or other fabrics. They are not linked to spreading disease, but the Asian variety may aggravate asthma and allergies in some people. They can even bite.
I had one nibble my arm. It felt like a small pinch. My instinctual reaction was to smack it. Fortunately, for the insect and for me, it escaped. Folklore says it is bad luck to kill a ladybug. Science says they can secrete a defensive fluid that stinks and stains.
As the preferred means of disposal, experts recommend vacuuming up ladybugs and releasing them outdoors. I recommend also giving them a stern admonition:
Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home!
This is my house. Go find your own.
KAREN BELLENIR has been writing for The Farmville Herald since 2009. Her book, Happy to Be Here: A Transplant Takes Root in Farmville, Virginia features a compilation of her columns. It is available from PierPress.com. You can contact Karen at kbellenir@PierPress.com.