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Hunt for the harlequin ladybird

15 March 2005

Britain's best-loved beetle, the ladybird, is under threat from the world's most invasive ladybird species - the harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis).

Harmonia axyridis mating © Mike Majerus

A UK-wide survey, launched on Tuesday 15 March 2005 at the Natural History Museum, is calling for gardeners, farmers and wildlife enthusiasts to record any harlequin ladybirds they find.

The survey results will reveal how widely the harlequin has spread throughout Britain and provide vital information on the potential threat to the UK's native ladybirds.

An extremely voracious predator, the harlequin ladybird easily out-competes native ladybirds for its preferred food of green fly and scale insects. When these food sources are scarce they readily prey on native ladybirds and other insects such as butterfly eggs, caterpillars and lacewing larvae.

Harlequin ladybird © Max Barclay

The harlequin ladybird was introduced to North America from Asia to control plant pests and, 20 years later, has become North America's commonest ladybird. First spotted in the UK in September 2004, sightings have mainly been confined to the south east of Britain.

‘The harlequin is a deadly threat to our own British ladybirds’, commented Dr Michael Majerus, for Cambridge University. ‘We need to monitor them closely in order to assess the spread and impact of the insect.’

Dr Helen Roy from Anglia Polytechnic University, one of the partners in the project, adds ‘monitoring ladybird populations has never been so important.’

The Museum's collections

Tray of harlequin ladybird specimens at the Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum's collection of beetles has five curatorial staff, and occupies a whole floor of the entomology building. It will soon move to Darwin Phase 2.

Maxwell Barclay, one of the Museum's curators says ‘We have a large selection of harlequin ladybirds in our collection here, including the known colour forms.’

‘Beetles are the most diverse group of organisms on the planet, with over 400,000 described species, and our collection includes almost 20,000 drawers of specimens, making it one of the largest and most important in the world.’

How you can help

Visit www.harlequin-survey.org for details on how to recognise the harlequin ladybird and contribute to the survey.

Barclay adds ‘The harlequin is more nocturnal than our native ladybirds, and may fly to lights or into lighted rooms at night. It also can form big aggregations that hibernate in outhouses, garages etc in the autumn, hence an alternative American name of 'halloween ladybird'’.

For a wealth of information, and to record UK native ladybirds, visit www.ladybird-survey.org (due to be launched in April 2005).

The UK Harlequin Ladybird Survey is a collaboration between the University of Cambridge, Anglia Polytechnic University and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. It is sponsored by Defra and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and supported by the National Biodiversity Network, the Natural History Museum, London/English Nature partnership and The Wildlife Trusts.

Ladybird fun facts:

  • There are 46 species from the ladybird family (Coccinellidae) in Britain.
  • Ladybirds are named after Our Lady, the Virgin Mary. The red colour is said to represent the red cloak Mary was depicted wearing in old paintings. The seven spots are for her seven joys and seven sorrows.
  • The bright colours of ladybirds have evolved to act as a warning mechanism. Ladybirds are unpalatable to most predators and the warning colours advertise this.
  • There are over 5,000 species of ladybirds all over the world but only 46 in Britain. Some of these are very small and not readily recognisable. There are only 27 that are likely to be found and easily recognised as ladybirds.

Further Information

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