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Press release

Hunt for the Harlequin

A UK Survey for the world's most invasive ladybird

Britain’s best-loved beetle, the ladybird, is under threat from the world’s most invasive ladybird species - the harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis). To help native ladybirds a UK-wide survey will be launched on Tuesday 15 March 2005 at the Natural History Museum by scientists from the University of Cambridge, Anglia Polytechnic University, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and The Wildlife Trusts.

The survey is calling for all gardeners, farmers, wildlife enthusiasts and anyone with a love of ladybirds to examine trees, bushes and plants and record all ladybirds, including the harlequin, they find. The survey results will reveal how widely the harlequin has spread throughout Britain and provide vital information on the status of native ladybirds and the impact of the harlequin.

Originally from Asia, the harlequin ladybird was first spotted in the UK in September 2004. Since then many sightings have been reported but these have mainly been confined to the south east of Britain, extending to Hampshire in the west and Norfolk in the north, with only a couple of records outside this region. Much more information is needed to discover the true extent of the threat to the native ladybird.

There are 46 species from the ladybird family (Coccinellidae) in Britain and the arrival of the harlequin ladybird is a potential threat to these. It is an extremely voracious predator that easily out competes native ladybirds for food. It is so successful that while native ladybird numbers dwindle, the harlequin ladybird flourishes. When their preferred food of green fly and scale insects is not available the harlequin readily preys on native ladybirds and other insects such as butterfly eggs, caterpillars and lacewing larvae. Harlequin ladybirds are also partial to soft fruit, particularly pears.

Introduced from Asia into North America to control plant pests, the harlequin has spread across the States, becoming by far the commonest ladybird in less than 20 years. In France, Belgium and Holland numbers are soaring annually.

‘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.’

How you can help
Monitoring the location of the harlequin is essential to understanding its impact upon not just our own ladybirds, but other insects as well.

Dormant throughout the winter, ladybirds wake-up in March and April and begin looking for partners to mate with. Ladybirds are normally found wherever there is food. Any plant, shrub or tree with greenfly or scale insects may attract harlequins.

Surveyors are asked to report any sightings of the harlequin ladybird, including where it was found (using a grid reference or postcode), the date and how many ladybirds there were. A photograph of the ladybird would also help verification of each find.

How to recognise the harlequin ladybird
The harlequin ladybird is rounder in shape and slightly larger than most British species - measuring 5-8mm.

Colour patterns vary greatly, but most harlequin ladybirds that have been found in Britain fall into three categories:

  • orange with between 15 and 20 spots
  • black with two orange or red spots
  • black with four orange or red spots

They have a white plate with a big black M-shaped marking on it, just behind its head.

Information can be submitted on-line at;
 www.harlequin-survey.org or details can be sent to the UK Ladybird Survey, Biological Records Centre, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Monks Wood, Abbots Ripton, Cambridgeshire, PE28 2LS. To submit records of other ladybirds and for a wealth of further information on ladybirds visit www.ladybird-survey.org .

Join the survey and meet the scientists
For more information or to meet the scientists involved in the survey a live presentation will be held in the Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum on Tuesday 15 March at 14.30. Scientists will talk about ladybirds waking up in spring, where to look for ladybirds, how to identify the harlequin and how to help with the survey. For further event details please contact the Natural History Museum, by calling 0207 942 5000 or visit www.nhm.ac.uk/darwincentre .

For more information or to join the survey visit:
www.harlequin-survey.org

-Ends-

Editor notes

If you would like to arrange an interview, request images or for further information, please contact:

Liz Woznicki or Chloe Kembery,
The Natural History Museum Science Communication PR Team
Tel: 020 7942 5278/5880
Email: l.woznicki@nhm.ac.uk (not for publication)

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.

The harlequin ladybird is a native species of eastern Asia, occurring from central Siberia, Kazakhstan and Tashkent eastwards through Russian to the Pacific coast, Korea and Japan and south to Mongolia, China and Taiwan.

It has been introduced into many countries as a biological control agent against aphid and scale insect infestations in greenhouses, crops and gardens. Populations have now established in North America, France, Germany, Luxemburg, Belgium, Holland, Greece and Egypt.

They can disperse rapidly over long distances and so have the potential for rapid geographic expansion.

The harlequin ladybird feeds most commonly on aphids, but has a wide food range, also feeding on scale insects, the eggs and larvae of butterflies and moths; many other small insects, including other ladybirds; pollen, nectar and sugary fluids, including honeydew and the juice from ripe fruits.

Ladybird Fun Facts

  • 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.
  • When ladybirds are attacked they ooze a horrid goo called reflex blood from their knees, which contains toxins and tastes unpleasant. Not surprisingly, this stops ants, birds and other predators from eating them.
  • 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 spotted so there are only 27 that are likely to be found and easily recognised as ladybirds.
  • Most species of ladybird are predatory – eating sap-sucking plant pests, particularly aphids. A few, such as the orange ladybird, eat mildews, and two species eat leaves.
  • The ladybird was regarded historically as a magical animal – it is supposed to predict the weather and happiness, cure toothache and increase potency.
  • Rumoured to have medicinal properties, Newell (1845) reports ladybirds to be a cure for measles and colic.

For further information please telephone +44 (0)20 7942 5654 or email press@nhm.ac.uk

Issued 15 March 2005