Nice way to honor Our Lady on her day.
by Brother John M. Samaha, S.M.
What insect has such a colorful and fascinating history as the ladybird, also known more popularly as the ladybug? In an age of faith when people saw earth mirroring heaven, this tiny creature was thought to enjoy the special protection of the Virgin Mary. Reversing its role in the last two centuries, this small symbol of Our Lady burst into prominence as a protector of people and their food supply. As the enemy of aphids, the ladybird has rendered service calculated in the billions of dollars in the past century alone. We have good reason to be grateful for this little beetle and to the Lady for whom it is named.
A problem of infestation
Agricultural specialists first became interested in the ladybug when California orange groves were mercilessly attacked by a voracious insect pest in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Already in 1880 agricultural experts discovered that a parasitic insect was infesting some orange trees in California’s Santa Clara Valley. The infestation was known locally as “San Jose scale.” Eventually it was traced to the flowering peach trees imported from China. These trees were infected with tiny sap-sucking insects until then unknown in the western world.
The deadly visitor insect from Asia found the orange trees a delicious victim and spread quickly. They multiplied so rapidly that they became a mortal threat to the citrus industry in all of California. By 1893 horticulturalists were occasionally finding specimens along the Atlantic seaboard. Five years later the havoc wreaked by these aphids was so grave that the German emperor forbade the importation of American fruits and living plants.
Finding an antidote
In the meantime, the Department of Agriculture had its specialists launch a counterattack. They tried a variety of pesticides, but with little success. Orange trees were dying by the hundreds of thousands.
Mr. C. V. Riley, chief entomologist of the Department of Agriculture, suggested that aphids could be controlled by introducing other insects which would prey on them. In 1890 such a proposal seemed radical and preposterous, and drew scoffs even from close associates.
But that did not daunt C. V. Riley. Working against indifference and opposition, he was determined to find a creature to attack the aphids devastating the citrus trees of the nation. He learned that aphids caused little harm in Australia, and concluded that some natural enemy was keeping them under control.
Mr. Albert Koebele was dispatched to discover that foe of plant lice. He concluded that a variety of the harmless ladybug beetle was the antidote. Gathering ladybugs from Australian plants by hand, Koebele shipped 140 of these plant-saving beetles to an associate in Los Angeles. When set free in an infested orange grove on trees covered with gauze screens, the ladybug liberators cleared these trees of scale within a few days.
More ladybugs were imported, and California scientists began to raise them in wholesale quantities. In California citrus groves they brought cottony-cushion scale under control within two years.
Following this success, this variety of beetle was introduced to more than thirty countries. Without exception they reduced or eliminated that damage of scale insects which infest citrus trees.
So dramatic and conclusive was the ladybird experiment that it marked a turning point in scientific agriculture. From that time hundreds of experiments have been made to find insects which would control insect pests and noxious plants. Economic entomology, now a major operation in several countries, is an outgrowth of the ladybird experiment to salvage California’s orange-growing business.
Significance of the name
The ladybird, or ladybug, rose to the rescue as the protector of the human food supply. Although this was a new role for the colorful beetle, the bright insect had been well known for centuries.
How did it become known as “Our Lady’s Bird?” No one seems to know exactly. In Elizabethan times many common creatures were attributed names with a sacred association. Such names were usually local in character. In the case of the ladybird, another factor came into play. Not only was it a colloquial name employed in a few areas of England, but it found its way into many languages in forms closely related.
In German the tiny critter was called Marienhuhn (Mary’s chicken), Marienkafer (Mary’s beetle), and Marienwurmschen (Mary’s little worm). Marienkuh was an earlier form related to the English “lady-cow.” The Swedes used the name Marias Nyckelpiga, and the farmers still call the insect “the Virgin Mary’s golden hen.” A slightly different tack is taken in French and in Spanish. In these languages the names link the insect with the protection of God. The French call it la bête a bon dieu (God’s animal), while the Spanish use the name Vaquilla de Dios (God’s little cow).
Both coincidence and cultural exchange fall short in explaining so widespread a view concerning an insect. Scientific names in Latin are common to many nations and languages. But it is extraordinary for folk names to be so closely parallel. Why should people in so many different lands envision the ladybug as enjoying heavenly protection, especially that of Mary?
Here is the most reasonable guess. Persons who have grown up in rural areas know that birds and animals almost always leave the ladybird strictly alone, for the ladybird is proficient in chemical warfare. It produces a yellowish fluid which it discharges in time of danger. Though seldom noticed by the blunted human sense of smell, this serum is highly repulsive to foes of the ladybird. Consequently the bright bug goes about its business with virtual immunity from attack.
Amazed at the beetle’s sheltered and protected life, the human observers probably concluded that it enjoyed the special favor of the Lady whom they themselves venerated and whose assistance they sought. It seemed natural to call the insect Ladybird. One might also conjecture that people saw a similarity in the creature’s charmed life to the preservation of Our Lady from sin. In the England of that time the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was a popular belief and prominently discussed. English dialects included variant titles like Lady-beetle, Lady-clock, and Lady-cow. Standardization of speech erased these names, and gradually the capitalization of the first letter was discontinued. Now only the scholarly reader continues to find in this insect’s name a reference to earlier reverence and Marian relation.
Farmers of Elizabethan England may not have understood clearly the economic significance of the ladybird, but they knew that it fed on other insects. Hops, long a major crop, are vulnerable to the attack of plant lice. Ladybirds abound in hop fields. They were probably observed in action more closely than the lack of written descriptions would indicate. Not until 1861 did scientific records mention that ladybirds feed on the aphids which infest hops.
Folk literature preserves some clues. One is the fact that even today the children of many lands know some form of this rhyme.
Ladybird, Ladybird, fly away home!
Your house is on fire,
Your children do roam.
Except little Ann, who sits in a pan
Weaving gold laces as fast as she can.
Children recite that rhyme after a ladybird has been placed on an outstretched finger. This practice has changed little through the centuries as indicated by a woodcut which dates from the reign of King George II. The woodcut depicts a child addressing a ladybird before flight.
Having more rhyme than reason, the jingle’s significance is clearer in view of its historical setting. Farmers often gathered hop plants and burned them when the harvest was finished. Ladybirds swarmed and children enjoyed warning the little birds to flee from danger. “Little Ann” was the name for a young grub of the ladybird attached to a leaf and shedding its skin, or “weaving gold laces.”
An important function
When scientists determined that the ladybird is a natural foe of many plant parasites, they began raising them in special insectaries, especially along the Pacific Coast of the United States, since this region experienced the most devastating attacks by aphids and scales.
Experts opine that the ladybird will never become obsolete and outlive its usefulness for agriculture. The life-saver beetle is more efficient for many operations that any pesticide yet devised. Those reared under natural conditions are more abundant and important than those produced by insectaries. In the United States alone at least 350 varieties have been identified. The protective work of the ladybird is responsible for a huge saving annually for the country’s farm economy. Without it, growers would be at a loss to produce substantial crops of needed fruits.
With no inkling of its significance in their own era or its future role in world agriculture, medieval farmers reverently named the little beetle Our Lady’s Bird. How appropriate that the creature so named became a protector of our food supply and the symbol of a branch of applied science. Eyes of faith allow us to see that Our Lady’s Bird is in fact a messenger from a provident God.