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.


Ain’t She Sweet

Updated October 25, 2017
Oops! Robert Bercha kindly corrected my misidentification of this ladybug. Thank you!

I almost missed this little beauty. The bright red caught my eye but I assumed it was merely another seven-spot ladybug beetle. An introduced species, seven-spots do a good job of controlling aphids and other plant pests. The down side? They have almost displaced native ladybugs in many areas.

This one is a true native: an eye-spotted ladybug beetle, named for the two big “eyes”. The Lost Ladybug Project shows a wide variation of colour in this species —  scroll down to Anatis mali and click on the photo icon — from the typical red shown here to dark brown almost black.

Robert writes:

” … the lady bug in question is actually one of the color morphs of the two-spotted ladybug, Adalia bipunctata.  The Two spot comes with multiple options of spots and bands. What doesn’t change on them though is the little castle shaped mark on the back of the pronotum. Anatis mali, is a much larger (~8mm) Ladybug with a very distinctive and different pattern. You can see more photos here and here: http://www.insectsofalberta.com/twospotladybug.htm and http://www.insectsofalberta.com/eyespottedlb.htm.

Yup, now that I know what I’m looking for — the two little white squares behind the eyes — I’ll recognize this little beetle for sure when next we meet.  🙂

Eye-spotted ladybug beetle

The Lost Ladybug Project began at Cornell University in 2000 as an outreach program with a 4-H program in New York State. It’s geared to helping young people learn more about science, especially biology, by getting them directly involved in gathering data.

Adults can also help by submitting findings and photos to the site.

Eye-spotted ladybug beetle   Anatis mali
Two-spot ladybug beetle   Adalia bipunctata
Dwarf/swamp birch   Betula pumila (?)