When I think back to my childhood and the very first wildlife I became aware of and excited by, I remember being fascinated by three things: birds, butterflies, and ladybirds. There was something quite picture-perfect about the latter, both in their rounded shape and in their colouration, straight out of the red and black paint tins.

In fact, I have strong memories of me and my primary school classmates finding them in the playground and encouraging them to fly: “Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home. Your house is on fire and your children are gone.” I think some kids even made a wish as they did that. Now what was that all about?!

In my experience, they remain just as popular today, which must in part be due to the fact that you can still find them in almost every garden or urban greenspace.

So here I’ll show you some of the ladybirds I’ve found in my garden. But first, just to confirm, they are actually beetles. I bet you knew that, but you might be surprised that there are actually 47 species in the UK. Only some of them are red with black spots; in fact, 20 species are sometimes lumped together as the ‘inconspicuous’ ladybirds, and you would probably dismiss them as just ‘brown beetles’.

You might also know that ladybirds eat aphids, but again this is not true for all of them. The very common but rather ickle 22-spot Ladybird (below) actually feasts on the powdery grey mildew fungus that coats the leaves of Hogweed and other common plants.

But it is the spotted ladybirds that we tend to notice the most. In the past, the three most frequently seen species were the 2-spot, 7-spot and 10-spot Ladybirds, and although the exact nature of the markings can vary between individuals, in most cases if you counted the spots you could be pretty certain you had identified the right one.

Here's a little quiz - get your counting head on and identify these two!

Answers at the foot of the blog!

However, in 2003, identifying ladybirds became so much harder! The Harlequin Ladybird arrived. Or, more accurately, it was introduced by accident. It is an Asian species, a big ladybird with a big appetite. It spread very quickly across almost all of the UK and is now probably the easiest type of ladybird to find.

And, confusingly, it comes in a wide range of spotty patterns, which can include ones with two spots or anything up to 21. The thing I tend to look for is the black ‘M’ on the back of the head and there are usually two black spots together on either side of the front of the domed back (you can see both those features quite clearly in my photo below). However, there are also black versions with red spots, amber versions with no spots, and more. Most confusing!

Finding ladybirds

To look for ladybirds in the garden, the first thing to realise is that these are creatures of the daytime that love a bit of still, sunny weather. No torchlit forays needed here. Most will be found in and around plants that have plenty of aphids, which can include many trees, especially lime trees.

The adults can be quite conspicuous, but you might also find the curious pupae and the rather savage looking larvae. The former look like hunch-backed little segmented capsules – the Harlequin pupae are especially noticeable, with big black squares on an orange background (below).

The larvae, meanwhile, are armoured aphid crunchers, with an almost prehistoric look that is so different in shape to the adults. They often have orange ‘landing lights’ along the side – this is a 7-spot Ladybird which is meant to have two orange spots where its hind legs meet the body and two more a couple of segments further on, but in this individual one of the lights is dark.

How to help ladybirds in the garden

There are three main ways to help ladybirds in the garden:

  • Don’t use pesticides to kill aphids – let the ladybirds take the strain. They won’t eat all of them, but they will do their best.
  • Fill your space with greenery. As with so much wildlife, plentiful plant material is the bedrock of the food chain.
  • And remember that all ladybirds survive the winter as adults, which our native species do sleeping in old seedheads, curled up dry leaves, in sheds*. So, leave seedheads standing and don’t put old leaves on a bonfire. It doesn’t mean your garden can’t be tidy; just don’t burn or destroy all the places where they may be hiding. (*In the case of the Harlequin, they tend to congregate in large numbers in autumn ready to go into dormancy, which is when they often try to come into houses).

Oh, and that nursery rhyme? Why is their house on fire? Well, some say it is talking about early pagans fleeing from the Christians; others say it is a rhyme about encouraging the ladybirds to fly away from stubble fields as they were set alight at the end of the season; yet others say it was to do with Catholics after the Reformation, the ‘lady’ in ‘ladybird’ being a reference to Our Lady.

I think we can safely conclude it is a very old rhyme, whose origins may have been one or all of the explanations above. What it does do is show how long we have all been fascinated by these attractive little creatures, and long may that continue.

Picture quiz answers: How did you fare?

  • The first photo is a 7-spot - three on each side and one in the middle.
  • The second photo is a 10-spot - five on each side and none in the middle.