Of Ladybugs and Horse Tales

I sat in the grassy roadside ditch, heavy dew soaking into my jeans and thinking that water-proof pants would have been a better choice that morning.

About then I spotted the little beetle hanging upside-down on the horsetail and thoughts of my soggy bottom disappeared.

An odd-looking ladybug. No sharply defined spots on her beetle body. Instead hers were smudged, as through dew had made the colours run. The bigger blotches reminded me of a pair of brackets or parentheses which — as it turns out — is exactly what the first person to name this beetle thought too.

Parentheses ladybug

That person was Thomas Say (1787-1834), whom I first encountered when I wrote about Say’s Phoebe. From the few accounts I’ve read Thomas was a quiet man who kept to himself, a Quaker who trained as an apothecary but whose real passion was insects.

Known as the father of descriptive American entomology, Thomas identified more than 1000 species of beetles, including the little one sitting beside me in the ditch. In 1824 — 183 years ago — he named it Hippodamia parenthesis.

An odd name. I can understand parenthesis but Hippodamia threw me. A further search took me back to 1758 and Carolus Linnaeus, the man who introduced binomial nomenclature to science. He designed a system whereby every living organism would be assigned two names, a genus (like Hippodamia) and a species (tredecipunctata) — the name he gave to the first beetle he described about 260 years ago: the 13-spotted ladybug.

The species name seemed to fit but still I stumbled over Hippodamia. She was a princess of Greek mythology whose name meant she who masters horses. (Hippopotamus, by the by, means river horse.) How did “horses” possibly relate to ladybugs?

The connection still eludes me. And that’s okay. Not all mysteries need a solution; the unsolved ones leave a gap where curiousity lives.